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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.
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.