Technical Rescue: Mud, Sweat and Cheers

New York City has one of the oldest subway systems in the world. By miles of track and numbers of stations, it is the world’s largest. But even at that, the mass transit needs of the city are greater still.NThe need for another subway line in...


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New York City has one of the oldest subway systems in the world. By miles of track and numbers of stations, it is the world’s largest. But even at that, the mass transit needs of the city are greater still.NThe need for another subway line in Manhattan has been debated for years. The specific idea and planning for a Second Avenue subway has been in the works since 1929. After a number of starts and stops, the tunneling began again in 2007. The actual methods of construction vary, depending on the section being worked on. The primary method is the tried-and-true “cut-and-cover” method, where the street is cut open and a deep trench is dug. The tunnel is then constructed before an overhead support system is added. Once that is completed, the trench is refilled and the surface is reinstated. Another construction method is the use of the Tunnel Boring Machine, a nearly 500-ton machine that can bore through 50 feet of bedrock in a day.

This work is both difficult and dangerous. The vast size and scope of the operation requires the solution to a number of logistical problems including lighting, air handling, debris removal, equipment maintenance, sanitation and worker safety. By comparison, in the huge project to build Water Tunnel 3 (work began in 1970), 23 workers have been killed on the job. The Second Avenue subway construction amazingly has had no fatalities dating back to work that began in 1929. But there have been close calls.

The incident begins

On Tuesday evening, March 19, 2013, a 27-year-old construction worker named Joseph Barone was working at the subway construction site at Second Avenue and East 95th Street in Manhattan. Barone, a member of Local 731, the excavators union more commonly known as “sandhogs,” was walking by a piece of machinery when his pants leg caught on the edge. This sudden pulling caused the slightest stumble and the man soon found his foot off the temporary wooden flooring and sinking into mud.

Other construction workers tried to free the man for several minutes with no success. At 8:33 P.M., the fire department was notified and a “confined-space rescue” alarm was dispatched for Manhattan Box 1233, Second Avenue and East 95th Street. This alarm matrix would send two engines, two ladders, Rescue 1, two squad companies and the Hazardous Materials unit, Battalion 10, and the Special Operations Battalion.

The incoming FDNY units would be faced with a construction worker, trapped in mud, 75 feet below street level in a wide trench excavation dug for the subway extension. The nighttime conditions were frigid and damp and the clay-like mud would prove to be an obstacle not easily overcome.

The first-due truck, Ladder 43, sized up the situation and quickly took a basic, but vital action. The firefighters made their way to the trapped man, attached a life-saving rope to him and slung it up and over a high point to prevent his sinking any farther into the mud. (Life-saving ropes are 150-foot-long, 15/16-inch nylon 707 continuous filament in a three-strand, left-lay configuration. The 10-pound rope has a breaking strength of 9,000 pounds and is carried by every unit in the FDNY).

Shortly after these actions were taken, Rescue 1 arrived and was directed by Battalion 10 to the 96th Street and Second Avenue entrance. The members quickly sized-up the problem and assembled a cache of tools they believed would be needed in the trench below. The sandhog was stuck in the mud up to his waist and members of Rescue 1 and Squad 41 began to dig around the worker with hand tools. They soon found that working in this type of wet, clay-like mud (known as “Bull’s Liver”; see box on page 92) was like “moving in wet cement.”

Rescue 1 began using a construction company air knife, but it was having little effect due to low air pressure. Despite the slow progress, the rescuers continued. After an hour of messy, dogged work, it was determined that the man’s leg was also pinned underneath sheets of plywood, now covered by the wet mud. The mud caused a tremendous suction effect on these submerged sheets of wood and their removal would prove to be both difficult and time consuming.

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