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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012, began as just another day at the office, other than a Safety Officer’s Training Class, for members of the Santa Barbara County, CA, Fire Department, but would result with a career call for nearly half the on-duty strength of the department.
Most of the station staffing assignments were altered by the training that was taking place at Fire Station 30 in Solvang, in the center of the county. At 2:43 P.M., Engine 31 and Engine 30, Helicopter 308 and Battalion Chief Woody Enos were dispatched to a reported traffic accident on the primary coastal traffic artery between southern and northern California, just south of the City of Buellton. Pieces of the size-up matrix began coming together quickly as Captain Gordon O’Neill in Engine 30 left quarters responding to the incident, approximately seven miles from the station, and reported smoke showing.
While responding, fire companies were updated with information reporting a vehicle hanging over the side of a bridge with victims trapped inside. Enos ordered the communications center to fill a first-alarm response at three minutes after the initial dispatch and requested a second alarm prior to the arrival of the first engine to arrive at the scene, based on information passed to responding companies from the fire dispatchers.
Eight minutes after being dispatched, Engine 31 arrived from the north with Engineer Greg Taylor (acting as company officer due to the Safety Officer Training). With the four-lane highway completely shut down at the scene, responding units had to maneuver through nearly a mile of blocked lanes as they approached from north and south. The initial report of conditions was calm and concise, informing incoming units that a large tractor-trailer truck was fully involved in fire 100 feet below the highway in a creek bottom between the bridges carrying traffic in both directions with a car hanging over the northbound bridge abutment and directly above the burning semi; the driver unaccounted for.
The incident commander established priorities with fire suppression to be accomplished immediately and assigned the car and any rescue problem to Engine 18, arriving from the south. Thick, choking smoke and fire from the burning truck rose upward, limiting firefighters from immediately assessing the severity of the rescue problem inside the BMW sedan, but it was clear there could be no delay in securing the car as it hung from the bridge with no visible reason for it not to fall the 100 feet into the fire below.
Fire threatens people in car
As the balance of eight engines, three water tenders, one bulldozer, two helicopters and a hazardous materials team response arrived at the scene, Enos assumed command. Firefighters directed foam lines onto the fire from both the top of the bridge and by dragging handlines down to the burning truck to knock down the fire that involved the truck, diesel fuel and exposed vegetation. The fire also threatened the victims trapped inside the car hanging from the bridge. Recognizing the complexity of the operation and limitations to what the available tools and equipment could accomplish, Enos ordered a heavy-duty, 40-ton crane to the scene, even though he realized there would be a lengthy delay.
Engine 18 Captain Michael Dalcerri and his crew were assigned as the assessment and extrication team to determine and mitigate the rescue problem as Division Chief Ray Navarro was designated as Rescue Group Supervisor. Rope kits, which are standard equipment on all department engines, were used to establish multiple anchors that secured the car to the concrete bridge abutment across the traffic lanes. Eight anchors were put into service as well as a steel cable offered by a passing tow truck to secure the auto as Dalcerri, unable to visualize the interior of the car, made verbal contact with the driver trapped inside.