Report and photos by Rita Reith
Indianapolis firefighters responded last week alongside multiple other agencies to a challenging confined space rescue call.
With only seconds of daylight to spare on Tuesday, March 26, a 34-year-old man was rescued from a silo after a 7½-hour, full-scale rescue effort by multiple fire department agencies.
The Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD) was dispatched to Milestone Contractors for a possible trapped worker inside an asphalt silo. Upon arrival it was confirmed that the man was indeed trapped in coarse gravel but alert and able to talk to firefighters. IFD collapse rescue and rope rescue teams worked valiantly for more than an hour to extract the man from the silo with no success.
With input from onsite Milestone Contractors personnel, plans A, B, and C were established. However, with no real way to remove the gravel from the silo, the constant shift of the loose gravel became the biggest obstacle. Rescuers reported that every time progress was made in removing it from around the victim, it would slide back down in a “V”-shaped cone and put them back to square one. Despite the initial use of wood as a barrier to stabilize the area around the victim, gravel removal proved to be like digging out concrete.
Additional resources were requested, including Hancock County collapse rescue, Sugar Creek and Greenfield Fire, as well as Fishers Fire Department. The city of Carmel also sent a large Vacuum truck. Rescuers maintained constant contact with the victim inside and attempted to use wood, a silo kit, and sheer muscle to effect the rescue. Exterior crews worked on creating an access hole on the side of the silo and used the vacuum truck.
Co-workers from Riley Tool and Machine say that the victim was working inside the silo taking measurements. Normally these silos are filled with asphalt but in order to take measurements they are filled with gravel instead. The gravel allows for a firm work environment on which they can walk. The gravel starts three feet from the top and the worker is lowered in. Once measurements are taken at that level, the gravel is released through a port at the bottom in three-foot increments. At each three-foot increment, more measurements are taken and more gravel is released until they get to the bottom. The crew was about 30 feet from the top at time of the accident. It is believed that the victim stepped on the gravel base and hit an air pocket, which sucked him into the gravel much like quicksand. He was still harnessed and attached to his braided stainless rope cable. He remained attached to that until firefighters removed it just before he was raised. Rescuers were unable to secure him to one of our harnesses as he was buried too deep.
Tac Team 14 utilized a high-angle rope system including a main, belay, and OSHA line for each of the seven rescuers (the OSHA line is used for accountability.) Because the victim was buried so deep in the thick gravel, firefighters were on constant watch for any sign of compartment syndrome or compression injury. On account of the constant pressure on the body and lack of movement and ability to perfuse can cause the body to build up lactic acid which, when rapidly released, can be deadly to a victim. The shift of the gravel and its subsequent release from the silo had to be well coordinated to protect the health of the patient, as too quick of release could have caused significant and/or catastrophic injury to his lower body. In the end, it was a combination of the use of the vacuum truck, the release of gravel from the bottom door (five pounds at a time) and the seven rescuers’ hard work inside the silo that kept the victim from serious injury and gave this rescue a successful outcome. The coordination of effort by all agencies on scene, from the firefighters up top and those working below, was truly a group effort with one mission. Representatives from both agencies said they had never seen this kind of accident before.
RITA L. REITH is a battalion chief with the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD) and serves as the agency’s public information officer.