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On May 5, 1996, two members of a maintenance crew subcontracted to the New Jersey Transit Co. began a routine painting job high atop the Passaic Avenue rail bridge. That job would become anything but routine that afternoon, when an accident required a difficult and dangerous multi-agency rescue effort.
Photo by Joe Kowalski
High angle rescue team members Darcey Licorish and Maurice Barry make their way out to the victim.
The rail bridge carries NJ Transit passenger trains across the Passaic River between Newark (in Essex County) and Harrison (Hudson County), NJ. Several electric lines with up to 27,500 Kv also run across the uppermost section of the bridge. Half the power was to be turned off on top of the structure to allow the painters to work on one area at a time. At approximately 1:20 P.M., one of the maintenance workers came in contact with a high voltage power line. The other worker descended the bridge and called for help.
Any high angle rope rescue attempt is difficult even under the best conditions; however, this operation had two unusual circumstances that the rescuers had to contend with: accessibility to the accident area was a major problem, and the top of the bridge where the victim was had just been painted and was extremely slippery.
At 1:35 P.M., the Harrison Fire Department dispatcher received a 911 call reporting "a man electrocuted" at the rail bridge on Passaic Avenue. A first-alarm medical assignment consisting of EMS-1, a basic life support (BLS) unit, and Engine 3 was sent to the location. EMS-1 arrived on the scene within two minutes and its crew followed several civilians pointing to the top of the bridge. It appeared that a victim was stuck nearly 250 feet up in the high tension catenary wires. Captain Mike Greene of EMS-1 radioed his initial report as Engine 3 arrived on the scene. Captain Michael Silvers of Engine 3 used field glasses to assess the situation.
The victim was lying across high voltage wires and had been severely burned. The shift commander, Deputy Chief Robert Greene, responded and assumed command. After a short briefing by on-scene members and the surviving maintenance worker, Greene realized additional equipment and resources would be needed to effect a safe rescue. His first request was for NJ Transit to shut down power to all lines on the bridge, then notify the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's Emergency Response Team (ERT) to respond. The Port Authority police handle the police, rescue and fire protection at the New York City metropolitan area's international airports and bi-state tunnels and bridges. The ERT is one of the most experienced high angle rope rescue units in the country, especially at elevated structures and bridges. Additionally, Greene requested a representative of a local crane and heavy rigging company to check the availability of a crane capable of reaching 300 feet.
Shortly after Harrison received the original 911 call, the Newark Fire Department received a similar notification. Newark responded to its side of the river with a battalion chief, two engines, a truck and Rescue Company 1. The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMD), also in Newark, sent two advanced life support (ALS) units, a rescue unit and its chief of Special Operations.
Greene set up a command post at the base of the bridge. The Newark Fire Department and UMD rescue and medical units responded across the river into Harrison and reported to the command post. At 1:48, a representative of the heavy rigging company arrived along with the Port Authority ERT. An NJ Transit supervisor and electrical engineers also arrived on the scene.