BY A. D. VICKERY and james woodbury

On September 16, 1996, the Seattle Fire Department responded to a downtown building construction site, where a 15-year-old girl was perched at the end of the 230-foot boom of a construction tower crane (which has the control house at the top of the crane; see diagram below), 180 feet above street level. Indications were that she intended to jump from the crane to the street below.

The incident began at 1745 hours. The construction site had been secured and shut down since 1700 hours. It was unknown how the jumper gained access to the fenced construction site. Given the challenges of gaining entry to the site, finding a way to ascend a 200-foot tower crane, and then making one`s way out another 230 feet to the tip of the boom, it appeared that the girl had a compelling desire to harm herself.

The department dispatched a high-angle rescue response consisting of an engine company, a ladder company, a technical rescue unit, a fire/aid unit, a fire/medic unit, a safety chief, a technical rescue battalion chief, and a district battalion chief. The Seattle Police also responded with six district units, a negotiation team, and a precinct commander. The news media, though initially on the scene, did not interfere with the operation and gave their full cooperation during the four hours it took to resolve this emergency. We also requested and received a no-fly zone. The media had adopted a “responsible journalism” policy that provides that there will be no live coverage of suicide attempts. This type of incident is treated as a medical emergency, not a criminal act. The policy has increased our ability to manage the scene and decreased the number of copycat episodes.


The first-arriving battalion chief established incident command (a unified command with the police precinct commander) on the ground level. The technical rescue battalion chief assumed responsibility for operations and established a staging area on the 11th floor of the building.

All units switched to a designated tactical radio channel that was a secure but not an encoded frequency; this limited access to the channel to authorized personnel within the proximity of one mile of the incident. Operations designated the engine company as Elevator 1 to assume control of the construction elevator. Rescue Group 2 included the ladder company, a fire/aid unit, and at police negotiating team. The ladder company officer was in charge. Rescue Group 1 included the technical rescue unit; the technical rescue officer was in charge.


The patient was 80 feet from the roof-level staging area and more than 180 feet above street level. She appeared to be of Hispanic heritage and was attempting to communicate by signing. She was hearing-impaired and capable of using limited sign language. A Spanish-speaking negotiator and sign interpreter were requested. The amount of ambient traffic and the distance between responders and the patient created the need for some type of amplifying system for verbal communication. The only available system–a karaoke machine–was procured from a pawn shop. The machine, which was brought to the roof, enabled us to establish limited verbal communication with the jumper.


Rescue Group 1 (the technical rescue unit), remaining out of the jumper`s sight, developed a plan to ascend the crane and conduct a lead climb out on the boom to secure the jumper in place on the tip of the crane. With the jumper secured, the plan then was to either walk her back on the boom or lower her vertically to the roof. Negotiations progressed slowly due to noise and distance. The incident commander directed Rescue Group 1 to move to the top of the crane and prepare for a lead climb. A Spanish-speaking patrol officer arrived on-scene and established a rapport with the jumper. We were now one hour into the incident.


Three members of Rescue Group 1 were at the top of the crane, and the other three were preparing to ascend the crane. Then the unexpected occurred. As the rescue group officer was preparing to climb the crane, a belligerent and hostile bystander, ignoring orders to stop, pushed past him and ascended the crane. He had broken through police lines at ground level and climbed the interior stairs to the 10th floor of the building. As he ascended the crane, he overtook two rescue group members on the ladder and made an unsuccessful attempt to push them from the crane. The intruder continued toward the control cab. At this point, members on top of the crane were ordered to shut the trap doors in the cab of the crane to restrict any further vertical movement of the intruder. As the members below began to move up the ladder, the intruder climbed to the exterior box frame of the crane. The remaining members of the rescue group climbed into the control cab and secured themselves inside.

Operations requested police assistance and halted all attempts at rescuing the girl, who was still on the tip of the boom. The safety of the rescuers became the primary focus. A police officer ascended the crane from the 11th floor and entered the cab to assist in controlling the intruder. The intruder made numerous unsuccessful dangerous attempts to scale the outside of the control cab. We began long and protracted negotiations with the intruder while simultaneously continuing our negotiation efforts with the patient. The rescue attempt could not resume until the hostile bystander was neutralized or removed.

Darkness and a rainstorm were approaching. Operations ordered Rescue Group 2 to provide temporary lighting in the stairways and the staging area of the llth floor. After more than two hours of futile attempts to get past the control cab, the intruder finally descended the crane. Police officers arrested him at the 10th floor.

The six-foot-two, 220-pound intruder was a transient. The police were unable to establish a link between him and the jumper. He had a history of theft, assault, and narcotics violations. His true intentions were never determined, although he repeatedly yelled to the rescue team to direct “any cameras toward me” so he could be on the news. Police charged him with criminal trespass, reckless endangerment, obstruction, and assault.


We were three hours into the rescue, and darkness was making operations more difficult. The crane operator, who had been requested earlier, arrived to assist rescuers. By this time, cold and dehydrated, Rescue Group 1 members were feeling the effects of the 45-degree weather. Their portable radios then failed due to low batteries. Rescue efforts once again stopped while the batteries were replaced and rescuers` fluids replenished. When the operation resumed, the lead climber moved out on the jib of the boom, setting protection while advancing toward the jumper. He reached her in 20 minutes and found her with a rope around her neck and clutching a doll. She was cold and tired but cooperative. He secured her with a victim harness. Together they climbed back to the cab of the crane. Rescuers opted not to use the crane trolley, because it may have disturbed the protection system set by the lead climber. The return climb took 40 minutes.

When they reached the cab of the crane, the crane operator lowered the jumper and lead to the roof. At all times, the jumper and the lead climber were secured with fall protection. A fire/medic unit transported the girl to the hospital for evaluation.


Expect the unexpected. Never underestimate how complex a seemingly simple operation can become. No one could have guessed that we would have a second individual ascend the crane and complicate the rescue or that the intruder would try to assault the rescuers. You must have adequate fall protection at all times. We did.

When multiple rescues present themselves, prioritize the rescues and resources. The Operations commander, when presented with the situation in which the safety of our personnel was endangered, made personnel safety the first priority. No rescue activity was undertaken until our personnel were safely able to continue the operation.

Good communication and control are essential for a successful operation. We had to coordinate communication among multiple participants to ensure a safe and successful operation. Radio discipline was essential.

Do not overlook rescuers` physiological needs. As the rescue progressed, firefighters became cold, tired, and dehydrated.

Reassess strategy. What started as a rescue changed into a threat to the rescuers, requiring that priorities be reassessed based on the risk benefit to the rescuers.

Interagency cooperation is necessary. Constant communication and updates were needed to keep police and fire personnel directed toward the common goal. The safety of police personnel involved in the rescue effort was required. Briefings of the police, building owners, crane and construction supervisory personnel, EMS personnel, and the media were conducted on a regular basis to ensure continuity of the rescue operation.

Training is critical. The technical rescue team regularly trains on cranes of this type. The training is conducted at actual construction sites with the approval of contractors. You cannot “simulate” these conditions. n

Tower crane from street level. (Photos courtesy of the Seattle Fire Department.)

The jumper climbed the crane using the support tower.

The jumper was located at the tip of the 230-foot boom of the tower crane.

A. D. VICKERY, a 31-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, is a battalion chief, Technical Rescue Unit, and a task force leader of the WA-TF-1 FEMA US&R team.

JAMES WOODBURY, a 12-year veteran of and lieutenant in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, is assigned to Ladder 7, Technical Rescue Unit, and is the department`s trench/collapse instructor.

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