Crane Flips Over & Pins Operator Under Crushed Cab

Shortly after 2:30 P.M., on Aug. 30, 2011, the Rochester, NY, Fire Department (RFD) was dispatched to a reported crane toppled over with possible injuries. On arrival, Battalion Chief Dave Bagley announced he had a crane flipped over near the water.

What made the situation especially challenging was the crane’s location. It had been working at the base of a multi-section dam that was being renovated as part of a power company project. The crane was moving wedge-shaped concrete pieces used to provide a level platform for the crane to operate on. As the crane moved one of the wedges, it tipped toward the Genesee River and flipped over. The crane’s boom landed in the water below and the balance of the 30-ton crane’s cab and chassis came to rest on the edge of the dam’s lower lip.

The crane’s operator was pinned under the crushed cab. The responders knew he was conscious and under the crane with extremely limited access to his body. The exact nature of his entrapment and the amount of injury was impossible to determine initially. Due to the location of the incident, many components of the RFD’s response capabilities were used along with multiple assisting agencies being called to the scene.

Flow restricted

With the proximity of the water being one of the first concerns, a request was made through the 911 center to notify the power company to slow the flow of the river in the area through the use of upriver dams that exist throughout the city. Rochester is bisected by the Genesee River, which runs north to Lake Ontario. This configuration provides multiple locations where hydropower has been captured for many years. Slowing the flow has secondary ramifications; due to the recent rains from Hurricane Irene, the entire region was experiencing significant runoff. The longer the flow was restricted, additional upstream flooding conditions could be created.

First-arriving companies were now faced with their second challenge – accessing the scene. To reach the crane the responders had to cross the top deck of the dam, then descend approximately 40 feet using a ladder mounted to one of the structures of the dam. Thousands of pounds of equipment were hand carried a few hundred yards to the top of the dam, then lowered to the crane’s location.

Once responders reached the crane, a number of events began to take place simultaneously:

  • Command was established and scene control was initiated. The remote location played a positive role in this process by making access control very manageable. With the proximity of the river and the uncertain stability of the toppled crane, unnecessary movement and people in the area could have proven disastrous.
  • The RFD’s Water Rescue Team was dispatched. The team deployed an inflatable rescue boat downstream and placed other team members along the downstream river shore as safety lookouts in the event of a land-based responder fell into the river.
  • The Rochester Police Department’s SCUBA team was requested to the scene. In Rochester, the fire department provides rescue capabilities for on-water incidents and the police department provides SCUBA capabilities for underwater activities. By having these assets on scene, additional safety measures were in place for the firefighters along with a resource capable of operating below the surface had the crane slipped from its resting point into the water.
  • The RFD’s medical director was called to the scene. Due to the significance of the event and the potential for advanced medical interventions during the incident, this decision brought the highest level of skills to the scene early.
  • The fire department’s Special Operations Unit captain and lieutenant were dispatched. Their assignments included assisting with technical rescue operations and functioning as a liaison for outside rescue assets called to the scene.
  • Monroe County Assistant Fire Coordinator Steve Schalabba responded to facilitate the requests for additional county-based technical response capabilities. The county has had a very active working group related to technical rescue activities for more than two years. During this time, significant inter-agency activities in the area of equipment acquisitions and training have taken place. As one of the larger counties in western New York in both size and population, it was identified early that the need existed for an established system to address these types of technical rescue incidents both in the county and in support of surrounding counties.
  • The balance of the RFD’s collapse response team was requested to the scene. This brought additional trained responders in the area of heavy rigging and the available equipment to support these operations.

Patient Contact

Once the initial companies made contact with the crane and its operator, Firefighter Lucas Falkner from Engine 17 established patient contact and maintained that position for the balance of the incident. As paramedics from the city’s contract ambulance provider arrived, one of their members, along with Dr. Jeremy Cushman, the department’s medical director, took charge of the EMS component of the incident. Due to the position of the crane and the magnitude of the entrapment, many medical situations came into play. One of the first areas addressed was the potential of crush injury and the internal injuries and crush syndrome issues that it presents. (Learn more about crush syndrome on the September 2011 Buzz on Technical Rescue podcast with Firefighter/Paramedic Jason Dush.)

Lieutenant Shaun Murray from Rescue 11 took command of the rescue operations. The initial size-up identified that the crane was situated in a position that allowed access from only one side. Complicating the operation was the location of a fluid tank on the crane’s undercarriage directly above the trapped operator. While evaluating the situation, it was determined it would create too much of a delay to remove the tank’s fluids and the tank itself. Also, it was not known what structural materials were under the tank, so the decision was made to leave it intact and continue with the current plan of operation.

In an effort to stabilize the crane and remove the trapped operator, cribbing and two 30-ton bottle jacks were positioned at either end of the crane. The initial lift with the bottle jacks caused the crane to shift slightly. At that time, the operation adjusted to the situation with the decision being made to use Griphoist systems to secure the crane in its current position prior to additional lifting. These are mechanical systems that can lift, pull and secure heavy loads using wire rope. The units, along with various slings, shackles and chains, were used to capture and secure the crane so that the lifting operation to remove the victim would not create a situation where the crane would shift in any direction.

A request had been placed through the Monroe County Fire Bureau for additional resources. The Henrietta and Bushnell Basin fire departments were requested for the use of their specialized rigging equipment. Each of these departments had Griphoist systems on its rescue apparatus.

To complete this component of the operation, members of the two county departments teamed up with RFD members to accomplish the set up of these systems. Again, the past efforts of working together paid off. Many of these individuals had trained together during a nine-month structural collapse program at the county’s training facility in 2009.

Due to distances to substantial anchors, responders also reached out to the contractors working on the site for help. They brought in volumes of additional rigging slings, chains and shackles to make this all possible. Their knowledge of rigging was an additional on-scene resource.

When possible and appropriate, using civilians associated with the incident provides a good psychological benefit to those on scene. With one of their coworkers trapped, the anxiety of the event can be overwhelming, so being able to assist with the operation does much good for these individuals. Always remember to evaluate the decision prior to implementing.

Lifting Phase Begins

Once the crane was secured, the decision was made to proceed with the lifting phase. As the crews lifted the crane, additional cribbing was positioned to maintain a safe working environment. Due to the inability to obtain additional vantage points, a SearchCam 3000 was deployed to let rescuers obtain visual images in remote locations. The 240-degree rotating head on the unit gave the team multiple views of the entrapment. Obtaining this valuable information would not have been possible without advanced equipment of this type on scene.

The space that these efforts created allowed the medical team to extricate the victim’s torso. At that time, additional medical management could be accomplished while efforts continued to free the victim’s leg, which was far more entrapped in the remnants of the cab than had been expected or could have been visualized prior to the lift.

The efforts continued to free the victim’s leg. Using hand tools and hydraulic cutters, pieces of the cab were cut away. Knowing that much of the crane’s weight might be resting on the extended boom, extra caution was used when working around any hydraulic or fluid lines. Working locations were again limited by not knowing what effect the cutting of these lines could have on the crane’s position and stability.

Even with the extraordinary efforts made to release the victim, he succumbed to the injuries he sustained when the crane tipped and trapped him. The rescue phase of the incident had been active for more than 3½ hours.

At this time, the incident transitioned from a rescue operation to a recovery. The initial companies were relieved at the scene by other units that would complete the recovery operation. All of the responders working the rescue phase were taken to their firehouses where members of an incident debriefing team joined them to address post-incident situations. In addition to this level of responder care, the medical director spent the next day visiting the individual stations to talk with the responders about the call and to explain the magnitude of the incident as related to injuries and the efforts they put into rescuing the victim.

So many times we deal with this same outcome however, those situations are traditionally short periods of contact with the victims or the outcome was determined prior to our arrival. It is imperative that when we are in these unusual situations, we provide all of the involved responders with the highest level of care to help them through the post-incident feelings that occur.

Though the final outcome was not what anyone would have predicted, all involved in this response should be proud of the extreme efforts and professionalism they displayed during the entire incident.

  • See Bob Duemmel Live! Bob Duemmel and Dr. Jeremy Cushman will be presenting "Overturned Crane Challenges Responders," which further details this incident, at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, July 17 - 21. Bob will also be presenting   "The Latest In Specialized Rescue Tools" and "How To Submit To Firehouse" and hosting a live recording of The Buzz on Technical Rescue at the expo.


BOB DUEMMEL, the Technical Rescue Editor for Firehouse, is a captain with the Rochester, NY, Fire Department and serves as the plans manager for New York Task Force 2 (NY TF-2). He is a member of the NYS USAR IST in the Operations Section and a member of the New York State Technical Rescue curriculum development team. Duemmel has delivered training to fire service, industrial, military and international rescue teams and has assisted with exercise evaluation for the United Kingdom and the European Union’s USAR program. He is host of The Buzz on Technical Rescue on Firehouse Podcasts and can be reached at bob.duemmel@firehouse.com.

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