Va. Crew Recalls Technical Rescue of Rig Driver

Newport News and Suffolk firefighters admit they were involved in a 'once-in-a-lifetime' rescue.


April 09--A simple connection cable was all that kept Almira Ribic from plunging into the water near the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel on Monday.

Just before 8:45 a.m., the Freightliner tractor-trailer Ribic was driving slammed into the jersey wall of the bridge-tunnel, overturning and sending the cab hurtling over the railing. The Newport News woman was calm, first responders at the scene said, but the ordeal was incredibly frightening. Throughout the hour it took to pull her to safety, authorities maintained constant communication with Ribic, talking with her over the cell phone and in person.

"I had face-to-face contact with her," said Lt. Rick Ruppe with Suffolk Fire and Rescue. "My main goal was to make sure she stayed put and was still as possible. I told her we would be with her as soon as possible."

Ruppe said at one time it was thought Ribic's legs were trapped inside the tractor-trailer.

A wide array of emergency personnel from across Hampton Roads raced to the scene to assist the rescue effort. Many of them described it as a "once-in-a-lifetime" event. It was something they train for constantly, but could never really anticipate what it would be like until it happened.

"I can't recollect ever going to a crash of that magnitude at that bridge," said Suffolk Fire and Rescue Chief Charles Jolly.

Jolly said Suffolk fire crews worked with Newport News firefighters to develop a plan to stabilize the vehicle and rescue the driver. The final plan resulted in Suffolk firefighters assisting Newport News crews in rappelling from a ladder truck to rescue the driver.

"It's better to ensure a stable platform before we start making kinetic changes to the vehicle, which may cause it to shift and fail," said Newport News Acting Fire Chief Scott Liebold.

"If the danger was seen as imminent by our field supervisor, we would evaluate other, more risky options. We strive to minimize unnecessary risk to the rescuer and victim. For safety, we had boats in the water very near the accident and divers in the water in case someone fell or jumped."

Ruppe said Suffolk fire crews picked up two Newport News firefighters, Master Firefighter Scott Dye and Lt. Denny West, in a bucket on their ladder and lowered them from the northbound bridge as far they could go.

Dye eventually rappelled down to the southbound bridge, gave Ribic a life-jacket as a precaution, then strapped her into a harness to carry her back to safety. Dye and West are both members of the Newport News Fire Department's Technical Rescue Team.

They spend much of their time training for delicate situations like Monday's events. But they've never trained specifically to rescue someone dangling from a tractor-trailer cabin over a massive body of water.

"I just tried to calm her," Dye,41, said. "She wasn't too excited, but she absolutely wanted out of the vehicle," he said. Dye was also concerned because the cab began to rock back and forth as he went down to give Ribic the life jacket.

He said he doesn't consider himself a hero.

"It's a total team concept," Dye said. "There was a whole lot of people in this small puzzle. ... I don't feel like it's heroic. It's what we do. It's my time to be at that particular place."

For Dye and West, Monday quickly returned to a typical day as firefighters. After all the activity on the bridge-tunnel they responded to a minor incident at Christopher Newport University.

Ruppe said quarterly training with agencies from throughout the region helped on Monday.

"We'll be discussing this on part of our next training," Jolly said.

Almira Ribic's husband, Salko Ribic, 47, of Newport News, said he was grateful for the help she received.

"Everything is fine," he said. "I want to say thanks for everybody's help here."

Responding agencies

A large force of local first responders helped with the crash at the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel on Monday. Here is a list of some of the agencies involved, according to Newport News Acting Fire Chief Scott Liebold.

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