Bridge Crash Extrication in Florida

By MIKE BLOOMBERG and JIM TUTTLE

It was a very busy day tour for members of Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Rescue (FLFR) Engine Co. 3. By dinner, we had already made 11 runs, which included a car/bicycle collision and a structure fire. The remainder of the tour was also filled with the typical emergency medical service, automatic fire alarm, and public service runs with which so many of us are familiar. In the tour’s early morning hours, the tones blared through the firehouse, dispatching us (a three-member engine company) and Rescue 3 (an ambulance unit staffed with two firefighters) for a Signal 4-a reported accident with possible entrapment. The dispatcher also reported that a box truck had purportedly hit a column and was hanging over the bridge.

Immediately, all of our minds started to size up the possible scenarios that we would face on arrival. The accident’s location was a flyover section of State Road 84 that extends over Interstate 95 (I-95). We’ve been to this stretch many times for serious accidents; it’s a maze of roadways that often confuses drivers and has a history of being very dangerous.

Squad 47 was on the road, returning from another run, and was also dispatched to this call; it was the closest company available and arrived first on scene and reported exactly what dispatch had described. The squad lieutenant arrived, established command, and reported that a box truck had penetrated almost completely through the guardrail and struck a concrete bridge column. The truck was dangling over the guardrail and was in a precarious position, pinned up against the large column. Engine 3 arrived seconds later, and its officer met up with the squad officer to perform as thorough a 360° size-up as was possible. During the size-up, we encountered the agitated driver of the vehicle, who wanted to self-extricate either out the window or through the door, even though the vehicle was perched at least 40 feet above the ground. Our initial actions were to calm him down, ask him to stay put, and tell him that help was on the way.

While we tried to keep him calm and in the vehicle, he said that his friend was also in the truck and seemed to be breathing. Unfortunately, because of our vantage point, we couldn’t get a good visual picture of how entrapped the second victim was or his medical condition.

Once we calmed the driver, our next focus was on securing the truck so it didn’t move or slide along the column and fall 40 feet to the roadway below, especially since there were two victims needing rescue. The squad driver connected the vehicle to the apparatus using chains and a cable; the heavy rescue arrived and secured the cable winch off the front bumper to the dangling vehicle.

During this time, Ladder 2 was responding to the scene. It was directed to remain on I-95 and respond to and set up in the area below the dangling vehicle. Ladder 2 was using a spare apparatus and reported that it didn’t have its front line tower ladder apparatus, but it was crucial for it to continue to the location.

Our plan was for Ladder 2 to set up outside the collapse zone and extend its aerial ladder to the victim. Because the victim was in such a state of shock, he kept trying to self-extricate by crawling down the side of the truck. We had to verbally encourage him to remain in place and reinforce that help was on the way. Because his mental state was so unstable, we decided to throw him a rescue rope to loop around him in case he would slip out of the cab or try some other feat. During this time, a precautionary hoseline was being stretched, traffic was redirected, fluid spills were being cleaned for scene safety, and extrication and medical equipment was being staged for the rescue operation.

Ladder 2 quickly set up the apparatus, and the ladder was raised away from and then toward the victim so he wouldn’t lower himself or jump onto the ladder from the cab of the dangling vehicle. As the ladder got into position, a member wearing full protective clothing quickly climbed up the ladder, locked into a harness, and rotated the last few feet toward the open door of the cab (photos 1, 2). He had to use caution because the hot fluids from the vehicle were both a slip and a burn hazard.

Photos by Joe Cavaretta, Sun Sentinel)
Photos by Joe Cavaretta, Sun Sentinel)
(1) Photos by Joe Cavaretta, Sun Sentinel.)

Once he reached the door of the vehicle, the victim began to self-extricate, and the firefighter quickly secured him to the tip of the aerial ladder. The ladder was then rotated about 10 feet to the right and back over the bridge guardrail and roadway; here, the victim could be removed, and medical attention could be provided. The victim was now being treated, and Rescue 3 would later transport him to Broward General Hospital.

As the victim was removed, the ladder was rotated back toward the dangling vehicle quickly to begin extrication of the trapped passenger. Unfortunately, the passenger had not survived the crash, and attempts to remove him from the vehicle in this position would be too hazardous. We decided to leave the passenger in the vehicle until it was sitting securely on the roadway.

Two special heavy-duty tow trucks with crane appliances were called on scene to assist with this operation. Initially, the tow truck drivers thought that they could just pull the vehicle back onto the roadway, but that proved fruitless; these attempts only caused sparks to ignite some of the leaking fuel, which was quickly doused by the hoseline.

After another size-up, we decided to use Ladder 2 to position large tow straps around the dangling vehicle so the two trucks could lift and pull the vehicle back to the roadway. Once the truck was back on solid pavement, we began to extricate the passenger.

The A post on the passenger side of the vehicle was cut and the door was removed. Next, we used a hydraulic ram to push the dashboard off the victim. Once he was removed and we completed operations, the scene was turned over to the police department for its fatal accident investigation.

LESSONS LEARNED

The following lessons were learned and reinforced.

 

  • The scene required shutting down numerous avenues of traffic. Calling for additional police resources allowed the major arteries to be closed for fire department operations.
  • In these situations, call for a tower ladder; it offers a better work platform than an aerial ladder, especially if you need tools to force the door and remove the driver.
  • Use extreme caution when setting up the aerial outside the collapse zone and near the panicking victim. Also, raising and rotating the ladder into position kept the hot and slippery fluids off the ladder’s components, reducing the chances of slipping on the rungs. Remember, battery acid can be caustic; antifreeze, motor oil, and transmission oil can create a slipping hazard; and gasoline can be extremely flammable. When rotating the aerial, ensure that the control is on low idle so it moves slowly and not erratically. This is not an uncommon tactic, but we had to perform this operation with caution. In addition, as a rule, never extend or retract the ladder when a victim and firefighters are on the rungs. However, in this circumstance, the victim and a firefighter were at the tip, above any rungs that could possibly cross.
  • The FLFR is now looking into other specialized equipment such as updated slings, harnesses, and a grip hoist.

MIKE BLOOMBERG is a 21-year veteran and a lieutenant with the Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Rescue (FLFR) assigned to Tower Ladder 2.

JIM TUTTLE is a 21-year veteran and a lieutenant with the FLFR assigned to an engine company.

 

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