On March 18, 1999, at 1:17 p.m., the Fire Department of New York responded to a call of “three people … heavy bleeding … sign fell from building.” Responding units were Engine 65, Ladder 4, Rescue 1, and Battalion 9.

The building, 22 stories, is the site of the famous New Year`s Eve ball drop in Times Square in Manhattan. The pyramid-shaped structure measures 140 feet x 60 feet x 20 feet. It has windows on the north and east sides behind large billboards and no windows or access panels on the south and west sides.

Winds of 40 mph had dislodged a heavy vinyl sign measuring 80 feet x 50 feet and weighing 500 pounds. One-inch aluminum flat bars with predrilled holes anchored the sides of the sign. Through these holes are placed “s” hooks connecting nylon ratchet straps every 12 inches. Three sides of the sign had pulled free from the west side of the building and were being wind-whipped to the south side.


After verification that no civilians were trapped at street level, Rescue 1 members donned Class 2 and Class 3 harnesses en route to the roof. They conferred with licensed sign riggers who were leaving the roof because of prevailing wind conditions. This information helped them form a plan of action.

Firefighters cleared the roof of debris to allow an unobstructed work area. Anchor systems were put in place, and four safety lines (12-inch static kernmantle) were attached to a rescue officer and a firefighter. They then climbed six feet up to the 14-inch-wide parapet to survey the sign. The other firefighters simultaneously made ready prerigged 4-to-1 mechanical advantage systems and other high-angle equipment.

For the next hour, the two members worked from the relative safety of this parapet. Using 12-inch utility ropes and two one-inch shackles as weights, they lowered ropes over the south side in an attempt to catch the whipping sign. Numerous attempts to connect the shackles at street level were unsuccessful because of the wind`s whipping the sign back to the west side of the building.

A shift in strategy became necessary when the sign wrapped around a light system extending from the west face. The light system, which projected eight feet from the building and was six feet wide, weighed 250 pounds. Building owners and their engineers calculated the sign would shred when it made contact with the light system. To the contrary, the sign began to violently rip the light system from its anchor bolts, shearing a concrete panel from the building. Sections of concrete fell onto Seventh Avenue. (A six-block area around this building had been secured from pedestrians and vehicular traffic, and a limited evacuation of surrounding buildings had been completed early in the operation.)

To secure the light system and sign, a member of Rescue 1 would have to be lowered by high-angle ropes from the roof down the inside of the sign–a 12-inch space between the building and the back of the steel-and-wood structure on which the sign was mounted. High-angle rope systems were already in place in anticipation of this eventuality.

The firefighter from Rescue 1 was slowly lowered over the west side of the building to the first ledge behind the sign. From there, he climbed and shimmied down farther so he could cut and remove the remaining nylon straps. A utility rope and shackle were lowered to secure the aluminum pieces, which varied in length from eight to 18 feet. They then were hauled back up to the roof. Before the fire department`s arrival, these aluminum pieces had been projected javelin-like into the Times Square area, piercing car roofs and windows and injuring several civilians.

The rescue firefighter continued to be lowered and climbed down the full height of the sign, stopping on each ledge to repeat his actions. Once he reached the bottom ledge, additional utility rope and shackles were lowered to him to secure the light system. Using a 50-foot rope, the firefighter made three attempts to lasso the light system. Once the rope was looped over the light system, a six-foot hook was lowered to him. He used it to pull the working end of rope back to him. He then tied it to the back of the steel structure of the sign.

The rescue firefighter was then hoisted using a 4-to-1 mechanical advantage rope system. At specific intervals, while being hoisted, the firefighter again had to squeeze through the narrow space between the building façade and the back of the sign. This was time-consuming as well as tiring. As he worked his way back to the roof, he had to lean out and straddle the ledges between the two billboards, catching the full brunt of the wind`s force. He reached the roof uninjured. This part of the operation was completed at approximately 4:45 p.m.


Rescue 1`s night tour relieved the day tour and was briefed by the Special Operations battalion chief and the IC deputy chief Division 3. Phase two of the operation began at 7:00 p.m.; winds had subsided by this time. During this part of the incident, FDNY rescue companies were to perform standby duties.

The Building Department ordered a closer inspection of the damage to the light system and building façade. Licensed sign riggers were preparing to use their own rope equipment and be lowered via bosun`s chair. The rigger planned to use a digital camera to photograph the area for Building Department engineers. FDNY rescue firefighters strongly suggested that the man being lowered make use of their Class 3 harness and redundant rope systems. He agreed. The standby changed to active participation.

All daytime rope systems had already been replaced on arrival of the night tour Special Operations units. All civilian and FDNY personnel were instructed on the plan of action. The rigger was equipped with an FDNY radio as well as his company`s radio/cellular phone. The rigger was lowered down on the outside of the billboard to a position parallel with the light system. A 30-minute inspection revealed serious façade damage. The worker was then safely hoisted back to the roof.

All pedestrian and vehicular traffic was reestablished, except for the area directly below the damaged façade. FDNY Special Operations units were released at 10:00 p.m. Further work was halted until the next day.

Overnight, the sign riggers worked to build a suspended scaffold platform on the structure`s west side. When daylight ar-rived, the final removal phase was completed without incident.

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