Unorthodoxed Confined Space Rescue Challenges N.J. Responders

Firehouse contributor Michael Daley provides an in-depth view of a very complex and challenging incident. He detrails the formulation of a rescue plan, to the initial challenges facing the crews and wraps up with the victim's removal.


Fire and rescue crews spent more than three hours trying to rescue a man who found himself stuck at the bottom of a pipe at a New Jersey water treatment plant.

On the morning of Jan. 17, 2014, operations were just starting to ramp up at the United Water water treatment facility in Manalapan, NJ. Shortly after 7:00 a.m., an employee overheard someone shouting for help as he was walking the perimeter of the facility. He and a few other workers were able to identify the source of these pleas for help; a man had climbed into a 20-inch diameter pipe that serves as an outflow pipe from a storage facility on site. The pipe empties into a drainage basin at the facility. The victim entered the basin, then the first section of piping, and traversed the horizontal pipe section until he entered a vertical section. He dropped 12 feet underground at the bottom of the pipe, head first. Immediately, workers rushed to summon help at the facility. 

The Initial Response

Upon receipt of the initial alarm, the communications center dispatched Manalapan Township Fire Co. 1 and Englishtown-Manalapan Volunteer Rescue Squad. After establishing command and completing a thorough size-up, the decision was made to reach out to the closest rescue team. At 7:35 a.m., command requested a response from the Monroe Township Confined Space Rescue Service. Contact was made with the administrative staff at fire headquarters, who organized a response from Monroe Township that included all three fire districts, along with an ambulance from Monroe EMS.

Additionally, there was potential for a significant injury to the victim; the victim’s travel through the pipe resulted in a 12-foot head first fall down the vertical pipe, outside temperatures during the incident were in the high 30s, and the bottom of the cast iron pipe Tee where the victim was located contained a mixture of water and silt, which could result in thermal injuries to the victim (see Photo 1). Based on the potential victim condition, paramedics on scene made a request for a medi-vac helicopter to stand by the incident for victim transport to the closest trauma center, along with a trauma physician on-scene for initial treatment.

Formulating the Rescue Plan

Once the rescue team arrived on scene, they were led to the location of the pipe where the victim was. Monroe Township District 3’s officer would serve as the initial Operations Officer for victim removal, as the responding chief officer relocated to the command post to serve as a liaison between the rescue operation and the command staff.

It became apparent early into the operation that any success would require the first sections of the pipe assembly to be removed, to allow direct overhead access into the victim, and would make removal of the victim easier than manipulating the victim through the pipes. This plan would require some essential assistance, so a request was made by command at 8:35 a.m. to have New Jersey USAR Task Force 1 (NJ-TF1) respond to the scene to assist with the rescue. NJ-TF1 serves as a full scale Urban Search and Rescue Team (USAR) for the entire state, and has significant expertise in many aspects of technical rescue

Initial Challenges

With additional rescue personnel responding, on-scene operations focused on pipe removal for the entry. The location of the space posed a few problems; the pipe extended upwards from a berm that provided a support wall for the retention basin. The proximity to the basin made for muddy soil around the pipe, which made tool stabilization and operation from the ground level difficult. Secondly, the top of the berm meant that there was limited space for rescuers to operate, and equipment on top of the berm was limited to what was in use at that time. Additionally, finding a suitable overhead anchor for the operation would prove to be limiting. The pitch of the walls around the pipe would not allow mounting a rigid overhead anchor with significant stability, so an overhead anchor from an aerial device was to be used.

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