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.


Mother and daughters trapped

The driver of the car was the mother of two girls, also trapped inside the car. She told firefighters she feared the children had perished in the collision, but a short time later, the 10-year-old girl regained consciousness and screamed from her pain and injuries, yet the 10-week-old remained silent and motionless. The rescue system expanded; a rescue division was established, safety officers were assigned, extrication teams designated and everyone involved was informed of the risks all faced.

For nearly an hour, the extrication progressed. Firefighters tied off from the bridge and climbed over the top of the car as they cut and carved their way toward the victims. As firefighters made cuts with a hydraulic rescue tool, saws and even a jackknife, the impacts were extremely challenging as one action created an equal reaction; often meaning a shift of the vehicle or parts dropping to the creek below. The driver, although trapped, needed to be tied off with webbing as she continuously slipped downward toward the open space below.

As firefighters came up on one hour in the rescue effort, another of many surprises occurred. Six U.S. Navy Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3 and the 31st Seabee Readiness Group, stuck in the traffic backup, made their presence known to Enos and informed him they were transporting a large, heavy-lift forklift they could use to assist in the rescue effort as needed. The equipment was quickly rushed into position, stretching its lifting arm across from the southbound lane to span the bridge opening and provide stability to the disintegrating car with three victims still trapped within.

With the forklift providing stability to the car, the extrication proceeded quickly. First, the 10-year-old girl was freed from the car and transported via helicopter with serious injuries, then the mother was removed as firefighters still feared the 10-week-old girl had not survived. As firefighters completed the nearly two-hour extrication with the removal of the infant, still secured in her car seat, it was determined the accident had not bothered her at all – the baby slept through the entire incident. She was taken from the car and handed uninjured to other firefighters on the bridge.


“Once-in-a-career” response

The driver of the tractor-trailer was killed instantly upon impact after rear-ending the car with the family inside and dragging it under the wheels of the trailer to its precarious resting position 100 feet above the ground. Nearly half of the on-duty strength of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department participated in successfully extinguishing the fully involved tractor-trailer, knocking down the exposed brushfire, mitigating the spill of nearly 100 gallons of burning fuel into a flowing creek and completing a spectacular rescue that prevented the loss of life to a family that literally hung in the hands, and skills, of firefighters, as well as on their ropes. It is quite likely this “worst-case-scenario” incident will be the once-in-a-career call that many firefighters involved will refer to for strength and pride as they work to provide their valuable efforts to the communities of Santa Barbara County.

Additional resources that assisted the Santa Barbara County Fire Department were the Santa Barbara City Fire Department and City of Lompoc Fire Department hazmat teams, AMR, California Highway Patrol, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, Cal-Star Medical Helicopter, Cal-Trans, California Department of Fish and Game and the Navy Seabees. The Seabees were stuck in the traffic backup after spending the night and morning in Buellton after separating from their convoy to assist another convoy vehicle that had broken down the day before the accident.

KEITH D. CULLOM, a Firehouse® correspondent, is a retired captain with the Santa Barbara County, CA. Fire Department with 35 years of active service. Cullom continues to work as a fire-photojournalist, and is widely published and maintains his website www.fire-image.com.