Manhattan Crane Collapse: First-Due Rescue Company Operations

By Tom Donnelly

This article focuses on initial rescue company operations at a collapse. This operation lasted several days and involved multiple agencies—no one unit conducted this entire operation. Rescue units can apply the lessons learned to collapse incidents ranging from construction accidents to earthquakes to terrorist attacks. The article does not describe the entire operation but rather takes a look at initial rescue company operations and rescue company tactics that fire department rescue/US&R units regularly employ throughout the country.

March 15, 2008, was a typical Saturday afternoon in New York City: People were busy shopping, tourism was bustling, and folks were taking advantage of a sunny afternoon with seasonable temperatures. All that changed shortly after 2 p.m. when a high-rise crane used in developing a high-rise structure collapsed without warning, causing a mass of destruction of the surrounding buildings and completely collapsing a five-story brownstone-type structure.

(1) This is a view of the front door on the parlor floor of the five-story brownstone. Components of the collapsing crane landed on the roof, causing a total pancake collapse of this structure and making void searches from the street nearly impossible. (Photos by Kevin Heckman.)
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Based on the volume of calls and urgency of the situation, the Manhattan Communications Office called for a full collapse assignment. Fire Department of New York (FDNY) units arrived within minutes and saw a scene of destruction and chaos: numerous people crowding the scene, some covered with dust and plaster, some bleeding, and some hysterical and dazed. Others screamed for persons they believed were trapped. The greatest concern and one that required a great deal of effort was determining how many victims were trapped and where they might have been located prior to the event, which would help determine their location within the collapse.

(2) An overview of the collapse area on East 50th Street. Notice the shear wall collapse of exposure 2, creating a secondary collapse potential.
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As per normal FDNY operations, the first-due incident commander (IC) established a full incident command system (ICS) and ordered the initial rescue company arriving with him to begin a collapse rescue operation. (See sidebar “FDNY Collapse Rescue Plan: An Overview.”)

Initial rescue company concerns included the following:

  1. How many victims were possibly trapped in the collapse? Numerous street-level civilians were reporting multiple victims in the immediate collapse area, and there was scattered accountability of possible victims because of the number of structures involved, the time of day, and the general chaos of the multiblock scene.
  2. Was the crane or were affected structures in danger of secondary collapse? Secondary collapse was a major concern throughout the rescue operations, and several firefighters were injured by falling debris.
  3. A strong odor of leaking gas filled the entire area. In a collapse, the utility lines are often buried, requiring utility shutoff at the street main. The IC requested the utility companies to respond immediately. Handling utilities is part of Phase 1 of the five-step basic collapse rescue approach used in the United States and internationally.


The overall strategy involved FDNY units performing various functions including hoseline stretches, surface search and removal, portable ladder placement, and extrication. The initial rescue company operations included the operations outlined below.

(3) As the crane collapsed, it caused a partial collapse of the top floor of the 20-story high-rise shown in the rear of the photo. In addition to the total pancake collapse of the five-story brownstone, the crane also caused an unsupported lean-to collapse of the top floor of exposure 2 (shown in detail in this photo). This unsupported lean-to collapse was yet another hazard that rescue teams faced while conducting the tunneling operation on the five-story brownstone located below this hazard.
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The initial focus was on the pancake collapse of the brownstone structure; this is where the most victims were reported to be. Other buildings were damaged, but the greatest life hazard was in the brownstone structure. We began initial removal of surface victims located at the top of the debris pile (Phase 2 of the collapse rescue plan). These victims were workers who actually rode the crane down and were trapped by surface debris. Rescue company members and first-arriving units focused on the surface victims.

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(4, 5) Using search cameras and listening devices, rescue teams conduct a void entry-search operation from the top of the rubble pile to the bottom of the collapsed five-story brownstone.
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Our rescue units are staffed with five firefighters and one company officer, allowing us to operate in either two three-member teams or three two-member teams. FDNY rescue teams use a team concept approach and are often deployed in this manner—for example, fire floor search team, roof team. The initial rescue company deployed in three two-member teams, one focusing on surface victims, one beginning initial void entry operations, and one conducting a recon of the pancake structure and surrounding structures.

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(6, 7) The extensive debris field caused by the collapse made the placement of portable ladders difficult, but such placement was essential not only to access the immediate collapse area but also as a route to remove victims as they were located and extricated by rescue teams.
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While initial operations were intent on removing surface viable victims in the front portion of the structure, the second team began initial void exploration operations (Phase 3 of the collapse rescue plan) within the five-story brownstone collapse. A brownstone is a structure generally built in the late 1800s as a private dwelling; many are converted to multiple dwellings. It is generally about 20 to 25 feet wide and about 60 feet deep. Somewhere in the midsection of the brownstone, the second team located another victim trapped in a small void between the crane and the debris pile. The team used hand entrenching shovels to remove the victim (this victim also rode the crane down as it collapsed). First-alarm ladder companies blanketed the pancake collapse with ground ladders; using a stokes basket, the team removed this victim down a ladder using the ladder as a slide. Using a ground ladder as a sort of ladder track helps rescuers lower a litter or stokes basket down to street level.

The third rescue company team, the reconnaissance team, began a 360-degree recon of the collapse perimeter, attempting to find voids and assess the lower part of the structure for void entry spots as well as secondary collapse potential (this is actually Phase 1 of the collapse plan—arrival, size-up recon). This team conducted “call and listens” or “hail searches” as they went around the collapse perimeter. Although difficult because of noise and equipment operating, these are effective search techniques. Sure enough, alongside the exposure 4 wall of the brownstone structure, this team heard faint calls from underneath the collapse pile. Many US&R texts say hail searches are very effective early on to try to pinpoint the victim’s location before a victim loses consciousness or is otherwise rendered unable to communicate.

This victim was on the second floor of the five-story brownstone, trapped in survivable void space created by furniture, a portion of the interior stairs, and other furniture. Pancake collapses are often the most devasting form of collapse. The voids are created by furniture and other types of objects that hopefully separate pancake floors and sometimes prevent a victim from being crushed. To keep this victim’s predicament in perspective, he was on the second floor with three stories of debris on top of him, the objects around him creating a protective cushion, so to speak.

Rescuers maintained constant verbal communication with the victim throughout the more than two-hour removal. As the tunneling operations progressed, rescuers deployed a search camera several times from different locations to pinpoint the victim’s location.

When the rescuers exposed the victim’s upper torso, an FDNY US&R medic went in to assess the victim and attempt to begin advanced life support (ALS)-level care. (The FDNY US&R medic program is an initiative to train a team of paramedics to be able to deliver ALS-level care in technical rescue operations. This initiative has been successful in certain operations since its inception.) The FDNY US&R medic addressed the potential for crush syndrome and relayed his findings up the medical branch chain of command. Once ALS-level care was established, the tunneling operation continued.

Once the initial tunneling became wide enough, a separate tunneling operation was started to attempt to expand the area around the victim. It was necessary to remove selected debris (Phase 4 of collapse rescue), which means dissecting the building in a strategic way to free victims and expose additional void spaces. Removing selected debris is a dangerous operation requiring specialized collapse rescue training. Only collapse rescue-trained personnel were used for this operation. This stage is considered to be one of the most dangerous because of the possibility of secondary collapse.

It is important for the tunneling operation to be clear. In this operation, the tunneling operation involved tunneling downward toward the victim. As tunnelers enlarged the voids, they again used search cameras to continue to pinpoint the victim’s location.

Firefighters continued reassuring the victim that they were making progress and were not going to leave him. Progress reports continued to be transmitted up the chain of command to the command post. The two-pronged approach worked well in that it provided the removal of selected debris from various spots around the victim.

It is important to note that when working in the immediate area of a victim, use small hand tools or small power tools for all digging and tunneling operations. Large saws do not typically lend themselves to a tight spot in close proximity to the victim, especially with a potential for fire to endanger the victim. These are judgment calls that rescue personnel must make as they encounter victims trapped in survivable void spaces. Sometimes you may need a torch or other tool to get through certain materials; use appropriate caution and backup safety such as a hoseline in position. Likewise, heavy equipment usually is not used during these delicate operations close to trapped victims. If you can do the job with small hand tools, so much better for the victim.

Another major consideration during a tunneling operation is to keep the number of personnel operating on top of the debris pile as low as possible (very difficult at times!). Basically the reason is twofold: It will lessen pressure on the debris pile and also keep the noise level down. The truth is, though, that most rescue personnel want to help, so this may be difficult to enforce.

After several hours of tunneling, rescuers freed the victim. At that point, additional rescuers had rigged a 4-to-1 mechanical advantage system to a substantial part of the crane to lift the victim (whose weight was more than 200 pounds) the almost 20 feet or so to the top of the debris pile. FDNY US&R medics continued ALS-level care. The victim was packaged in a stokes basket and transported to a trauma center, where he survived his injuries and is expected to make a full recovery.


FDNY successfully removed multiple victims from this massive crane collapse. Unfortunately, seven victims perished. The search and rescue operation continued for almost another 48 hours until the final victims were removed.

Following are some lessons learned.

  1. Rescue units’ team approach proved very effective (having the capability to operate in either two three-member teams or three two-member teams).
  2. The early use of search cameras, thermal imaging cameras, and basic techniques such as call and listen and hailing proved beneficial.
  3. Because of the danger involved in a collapse situation, company officers must maintain strict control. During dangerous operations such as tunneling, try to use the minimum number of personnel (to expose fewer people to the danger) with maximum supervision.
  4. Keep the number of personnel on the top of the debris pile as low as possible.
  5. To keep continuity during a tunneling operation, try to channel all communication through one victim removal officer.
  6. Small hand-powered tools, reciprocating saws, battery-powered circular saws, and lightweight rescue tools are preferred to minimize movement in the debris pile when operating near the victim.
  7. The first-due rescue company should try to use a six-sided approach: all four sides, above (in this case, falling debris), and below (basements, underground parking, utilities).
  8. Ensure accuracy of initial reports to the IC. The IC is depending on these reports to formulate the incident action plan.
  9. The rescue plan has to be flexible, because rescue operations are very dynamic events--existing conditions may necessitate changing strategy and tactics at a moment’s notice.
  10. Try to get a step ahead. Think about what the next piece of the puzzle will be. Consider alternatives if faced with a changing condition.
  11. The rescue company officer has to depend on the eyes and ears of his team to achieve the final goal of victim removal. Be sure to continually communicate up the chain of command progress reports of the tunneling operation as well as needs.
  12. The concept of a US&R medic once again proved its usefulness. Being able to deliver ALS-level care to a trapped victim may in fact give the rescue company the time it needs to free the victim without compromising his medical status.

Thanks to Captain Larry Collins, Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department, and Deputy Assistant Chief (Ret.) John Norman, Fire Department of New York, for their assistance with this article.

Tom Donnellyis a lieutenant in Fire Department of New York Rescue 1; he also served as a firefighter with Ladder 176 and Rescue 2. He is an instructor at the FDNY Technical Rescue School and has been an instructor with the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Academy for 17 years. He has been a volunteer firefighter for 24 years with the Deer Park (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree from Saint Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York.

FDNY Collapse Rescue Plan: An Overview

The FDNY Collapse Rescue Plan is based on a proven effective plan of action. FDNY has used this sequence of events for years, with excellent results, in numerous fire and nonfire collapses. It is designed to provide the greatest chance of survival to the greatest number of victims while using the most efficient deployment of personnel. It consists of five separate stages of operations, which should almost always be carried out in order and always under fire department direction. If conditions are present to the degree that an extensive rescue is required, a department signal is transmitted and the collapse plan is implemented.

The following FDNY units are assigned on the confirmation of a serious collapse:

8 engine companies
4 ladder companies
1 FAST unit
2 Special Operations Command (SOC) support ladder companies
Rescue Operations battalion chief
2 deputy chiefs
6 additional battalion chiefs
2 collapse rescue task forces
SOC logistics van
SOC compressor truck
1 tactical support unit
Safety operating battalion
Field Communications Unit
2 squad companies, including technical response vehicle
Public information officer
Mobile command center

Numerous units are provided on this assignment, to ensure sufficient resources to meet an expanding rescue operation.

There are five collapse rescue task forces within FDNY, each consisting of one rescue company, one collapse rescue unit, and a special operations support ladder company.

This response assignment will meet the following objectives: extinguish any fire; conduct searches; locate and mitigate all hazards; install protective measures (shoring); remove trapped victims; and triage, treat, and transport victims.

The five stages of the collapse rescue plan are as follows:

1. Reconnaissance. The reconnaissance plan constitutes part of the size-up. Some questions that have to be answered include the following: What happened? Where do we start looking for victims? Where were they last seen? What is the building construction? What is the likelihood of secondary collapse?

2. Accounting for and removal of surface victims. Victims may be found in various degrees of entrapment. Begin removing victims who are lightly pinned. Try to question victims if possible about additional victims.

3. Void search. Void spaces are created that could shelter victims. Debris is supported by parts of the foundation or strong items found within the building. FDNY rescue and squad companies are equipped with search cameras to help search voids and detect barely audible sounds. All collapse units carry electronic listening devices; these devices are quite sensitive and can pick up sounds or vibrations a considerable distance.

4. Selected debris removal and tunneling. Selected debris removal is used to reach a specific point where victims are located or suspected to be. It may involve breaching a hole through a wall, cutting through a roof or floor, or tunneling through mixed debris. During a tunneling or selected debris removal operation, a victim removal leader directs the operation of shoveling, hand digging, or cutting nonbearing assemblies. Crush syndrome is a potentially life-threatening condition that develops in buried collapse victims whose circulation becomes restricted. Any type of weight that limits blood flow to a limb similar to a tourniquet can create this condition; if the patient is not properly treated, it could create a life-threatening situation. To address this, FDNY developed the rescue paramedic or US&R medic concept. The rescue paramedic is trained in collapse/confined space medicine and is permitted to perform advanced procedures on entrapped patients.

5. General debris removal. After trying all other methods and if persons are still missing (and deemed not survivable) and in unknown locations, personnel remove all rubble and systematically strip the pile. Personnel spread out each load of debris on the ground and thoroughly examine it before removal from the site. A demolition debris log is maintained when there are still victims unaccounted for. It is necessary to examine every inch of the structure right down to the foundation to avoid overlooking a victim who has not previously been reported missing.

FDNY remains at the collapse site until the debris removal phase is complete.

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