BY RICK KLEIN
At approximately 1250 hours on April 22, 2002, the Brown County Dispatch Center received a call that a member of a five-person crew that had been working high up on a communications tower in Rock County in north central Nebraska had been injured.
The crew had been contracted by Procom Communications in Groves, Texas, to raise a digital communications cable to the top of a 1,524-foot television communications tower approximately 20 miles southwest of the ranching community of Bassett, Nebraska. A 3/8-inch hoist cable that was supporting the four-inch-diameter communications cable the crew was hoisting failed, and somehow the falling cable system may have been involved in injuring the worker. At the time, it was not known how serious the worker had been injured.
The crew had been operating at the site for several days checking the rigging system installed by a previous contractor. The members began work at approximately 0800 hours that morning and began the hoisting process mid-morning. The digital cable was approximately 50 feet from its final destination when the 3/8-inch hoist cable appeared to fail. The cable and the remaining section of the hoist cable fell and went past the injured crew member, who was on an external platform at the 1,180-foot level.
It was not known whether the falling cable actually struck the worker or sent him over the side of the platform. The worker’s fall protection device prevented him from falling. It is suspected that the five-foot lanyard acted as a pendulum cord and may also have propelled the worker into the underside of the platform. (The cause of the incident is still under investigation.)
Two coworkers on the tower made their way to the injured worker’s location within minutes but were unable to reach him to check for vital signs. Signs of head trauma were present. The workers called Brown County Dispatch.
Brown County Dispatch immediately notified the adjacent Rock County Sheriff’s Dispatch. At 1253 hours, Rock County Sheriff Dispatch issued an “all call” to emergency responders, which included volunteer firefighters, EMS personnel, and County Sheriff personnel from the Bassett area. Rock County Emergency Director Doug Fox was paged and called at home. A member of the Bassett Volunteer Fire Department, he had already reported there and responded with the first-out fire units.
At 1309 hours, Deputy Sheriff Steve Anderson was the first to arrive on the scene. He reported an injured worker suspended by his fall restraint system on the tower at approximately the 1,200-foot level.
On arrival, Fox sized up the situation and realized that the incident was beyond the area’s emergency resources. The Ainsworth Volunteer Fire Department was summoned for mutual aid. Although it didn’t have the capability to effect the rescue/recovery, it had some equipment, including a 400-foot life safety rope, and personnel that could help. The services of an agency that could perform a rescue from extreme heights were needed; therefore, the incident was declared a disaster so the State of Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) would respond.
The Nebraska State Patrol in Norfolk, Nebraska, contacted for assistance, reported it had no resources or trained personnel available to assist and suggested contacting the National Guard. The National Guard was uncertain about using aircraft to make this rescue. Fox realized that it would be almost impossible to use aircraft because of the worker’s situation and the fact that there was 350 feet of tower above the worker. The National Guard said it might be able to bring rescue personnel to the location by air but probably would not be able to perform a rescue.
A medical transport helicopter from the Good Samaritan Emergency Services in Kearney, Nebraska, about 150 miles from the incident site, was requested for patient care and transport.
LINCOLN FIRE & RESCUE RESPONDS
Good Samaritan asked Lincoln Fire & Rescue (LFR) for assistance around 1417 hours; later, NEMA also called LFR for assistance. LFR obtained authorization from the mayor and governor of the state to respond. By 1515 hours a six-person team from on-duty truck company personnel had been assembled. Four members of the rescue team were also members of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Team in Lincoln (NE TF-1).
The team and the equipment that was assembled from LFR and the US&R equipment cache-2,600 feet of rope in bags (the longest section being 300 feet), class 3 rappel harnesses, carabiners, pulleys, ascenders, one- and two-inch webbing, manufactured slings, personal protective equipment, portable radios, cell phones, and documentation supplies-departed by State Patrol aircraft from the airport at 1610 hours.
En route, team members discussed potential rigging systems, operational and safety plans, and team and organizational structure. About 15 minutes from Bassett, the plane encountered unstable air caused by a weather system in which rain clouds were moving swiftly eastward with columns of rain streaming down in various areas and winds that caused the plane to jump around a little.
We scanned the horizon for a view of the tower. About 20 miles southwest of Bassett, we could see this long, tall, and seemingly narrow tower in the distance.
The plane touched down at 1705 hours. Members of the Bassett Volunteer Fire Department met the team. We transferred the equipment to awaiting vehicles and headed to the incident site, about 20 minutes away. We discussed the incident situation with the Bassett firefighters and were still concerned about the local weather. It was raining in isolated patterns; the clouds were moving swiftly to the east with a 20-mph wind. These conditions and the potential for lightning height-ened our concerns. We requested area weather reports for the next hour, the next four to six hours, and the next 12 hours.
THE INCIDENT SITE
Once on the site, situated in the rolling Nebraska sand hills, we set out for the communication tower offices, where we met with the local fire chief, the emergency man-agement officials on-site, and the crew supervisor in charge of the cable installation. We discussed the incident, the worker’s possible condition, the tower’s safety features, and the inherent hazards and dangers involved with working on the tower. Team members viewed several digital photos of the worker’s predicament taken with a 30-power zoom camera and reviewed the type of safety harness the worker was wearing.
The top 700 feet of the communications tower. The victim was hanging from this platform at about the 1,200-foot level. (Photos by author.)
The most intimidating aspect of this incident was the sheer size of the tower and determining if it swayed in the wind, which was a definite concern. It was 1,524 feet high; anticipating climbing to 1,200 feet was pretty awesome. As we approached the tower, we realized it was much higher than the 50- to 100-foot heights we are used to in high-angle training.
However, the more we talked with the tower crew’s supervisor, the more our comfort level with the tower increased. We asked about weight restrictions so we could determine how many team members could be placed on the structure. We were told there weren’t enough people in the Bassett area to overload this tower. He told us the tower did not move in the wind and that it would be “as stable as the ground you walk on” and that lightning was not a factor-the system was thoroughly grounded-and that once you were on the tower, you would not even know if lightning hit.
View from the base of the tower ladder area. Workers had only a 21/2-foot-long triangular area within which to work.
We also discussed the mental aspect of climbing the heights of these types of towers with the crew supervisor and asked about the availability of light-ing equipment should the rescue effort extend beyond daylight hours.
The tower ladder we would have to climb was inside the tower’s main structure; it was not enclosed. The climb would be straight up with no angles. According to the crew supervisor, it would take about two hours to get to the worker’s location.
None of the four LFR rescuers had any experience climbing this type of tower. That is why we took a lot of time to become familiar with the tower before committing to the rescue. We arrived on-site at 1730 hours and began our climb up the tower at 1850 hours. We talked with the crew supervisor, looked long and hard at the tower itself, and became familiar with the equipment.
The lightning grounding system on the concrete base of the tower. The legs of another tower support can be seen on the right.
We also selected two Ainsworth Volunteer Fire Department firefighters who had experience working at high heights, to assist us in moving equipment up the tower. (One firefighter had been a tower painter; the other had worked in and around grain elevators.)
Team 1 consisted of LFR firefighter Robert Borer in the lead with LFR firefighter Mike Wright. Team 2 would be LFR firefighter Guy Jones in the lead with LFR firefighter Jeremy Hosek. Ainsworth firefighter Jeff Keezer would assist Team 2 with staging equipment.
Team members discussed the following issues.
- Climbers’ stamina. Even though the team members were physically fit, there was concern about their arms and legs’ becoming fatigued and how that might affect manipulating the rescue equipment once they were in position. We determined that there were rest platforms every 75 feet or so all of the way up to the top of the tower, permitting climbers to step off the ladder and take a break.
- Weather. The weather was an ongoing concern. Clouds were still looming overhead but were moving swiftly. The wind was producing eerie sounds through the tower framework. In about an hour, the skies began to clear, the wind was diminishing, and the three-quarter moon was shining brightly. The temperature was about 55°F; there were about two hours of sunlight left. The temperature was forecast to drop to the mid-40s.
- Plans and equipment reviews. We discussed the action and safety plans and reviewed the equipment that would be needed for the climb and the rigging.
PREPARING FOR THE CLIMB
We discussed anchor points on the tower’s framework. The team assembled the lowering system, which included a brake bar rack, a three-inch pulley, webbing, and carabiners, and made a second identical system. The method of operating the lowering and anchoring systems to support it were reviewed. The teams determined how to disassemble the lowering system, keeping the components as complete as possible so that the system could be easily attached to the tower.
We once again viewed the ladder to the tower and the area of framework within which the teams would operate. The worker’s supervisor provided information on the distances between target points that would be used to transfer the worker from one lowering system to the next. We determined it would take a series of four lowerings and three transfers to complete the evolution.
The aircraft warning lights on the structure would mark the transfer target points-at the 1,180-foot level, where the worker was; the 855-foot level; the 585-foot level; and the 320-foot level. The final lowering would be onto a platform truck from the Western Area Power Association (WAPA) with a 90-foot operating height. The WAPA truck responded with two personnel who were working in the vicinity and heard about the incident.
The team reviewed the finalized rescue plan with the chiefs from Bassett and Ainsworth, the emergency director, and the coworker’s supervisor. All agreed on the plan.
The climbers donned their personal protective equipment, which included coveralls, helmet with light, rugged footwear, leather gloves, class 3 harnesses, water bottles, and radios.
Members had a one-inch webbing tied with a water knot attached to their harness with a carabiner. An additional carabiner allowed the members to tie off to the ladder or any other structure when they were resting or were stationary at a working location.
This climb was basically a free climb for 1,200 feet. The tower had no safety fall device permanently attached. Some towers have a cable that runs the entire length of the ladder to which a fall restraint device can be attached. This tower did not have such a cable. The rescuers tied off when necessary. The tower ladder was inside of one corner so that you ascended inside of the main structure. The climbing area was fairly tight; there was a horizontal cross member every eight feet and diagonal bracing in each eight-foot section-there was a lot of structure around the rescuers.
The rescuers never were on any of the rope-lowering systems; they only operated them. Only the victim was on a rope.
The rigging was attached and the rope prepared to be lifted. The team decided that the rope would be played out of the bag as the climbers ascended the ladder. The bulk of the rope bags would interfere with the climber’s ability to maneuver up through the structure. The rope would have a loop formed by a figure eight knot and be placed over the climber’s head and onto his shoulder. The lead climber would carry the bulk of the hardware. The second team member would bear the major weight of the rope. The third team member would assist from below to take weight on his shoulder and watch for “snag” hazards. The rope would lie next to the ladder so that it would not interfere with the climbers’ footing.
Team members checked their portable radios, harnesses, and rigging for the final time. All was ready. Team 1 could begin.
It was decided that the incident would be approached a few hundred feet at a time in the climbing process and 300 feet at a time in the victim-lowering process. Once we broke the operation down this way, it was easier to comprehend and deal with.
At 1850 hours, Team 1 approached the tower with Borer in the lead and Wright carrying the 400-foot rope from the Ainsworth Fire Department. This rope would be needed for the initial lowering of the worker to the first designated transfer location, a distance of 325 feet. Wright was about 30 feet behind with Ainsworth firefighter Carr about 200 feet behind him. Ground support personnel were reminded to don helmets, and all nonessential personnel were cleared from the “drop zone” in case team members dropped a piece of equipment.
Once Team 1 had ascended the first 400 feet, Team 2 followed the same climbing procedure with Jones in the lead with the hardware and Hosek about 30 feet behind with the rope on his shoulder. They ascended to the 320-foot rest platform and then together hoisted a second 300-foot rope to that location to be staged for use later in the process. Once the additional 300-foot rope was hoisted and placed, Team 2 continued to ascend. They eventually made it to the 855-foot location, where they prepared for stage 2 of the lowering system. As Team 2 left the 320-foot platform, Ainsworth firefighter Keezer ascended to the 585-foot level with another 300-foot rope and staged at that location. The plan was to ensure that enough rope was staged on the tower at each transfer point to complete lowering the worker once the lowering was begun.
Team 1’s climb took one hour and 35 minutes. The rescuers started at a fast pace and were told to slow down to manage their energy level. They stopped about every 200 feet or so for a break and to hydrate, if needed. Members stopped periodically to report to the technical rescue operations officer on their physical condition, wind conditions at their location, and their progress. Their physical condition was monitored by radio each time they took a break. They were continually reassured that their safety was foremost in our minds. The firefighters said they felt some discomfort-more in their legs than in their hands-for the first 20 feet or so but that they had no trouble after that. They reported having sore muscles for the next day or two.
APPROACHING THE VICTIM
At 2035 hours, Team1 leader Borer, carrying rope and hardware, was nearing the worker’s location. He tried to make verbal contact with the worker but got no response. Because of the worker’s location, it would be another 15 minutes before team personnel could assess the worker, who was dangling by his safety lanyard from the far corner about six feet out on an external platform attached to the tower structure. He was beyond an arm’s length. Team 1 had to rig a retrieval device to bring the worker closer so the team could assess him and transfer him to the rope-lowering system.
Borer attached himself and a retrieval webbing to the external platform at this level and laid out flat to reach the far corner where the lanyard was attached. The running end of the webbing was affixed to the lanyard with a carabiner, which then slid down to the D-ring on the safety harness near the worker’s shoulders.
Borer again tried to solicit a verbal response, but there no answer. Borer could see that the worker had a severe head injury. Borer also attached a lowering pulley on the near corner of the platform in which to feed the rope from the braking device. This would bring the worker in toward the tower about two feet from the structure during the lowering process. Borer retreated from the platform and joined Wright, who was preparing the braking device on the structure. Together, they pulled the worker over to the side of the tower and assessed his vitals. At 2055 hours, the worker was determined to be deceased. All personnel on the tower were informed of the worker’s condition and reminded that their safety was still paramount.
Borer and Wright continued to secure the remainder of the braking system and worked to transfer the victim to the lowering system. They accomplished this by attaching the rope to the worker’s harness D-ring with a carabiner and taking up all slack in the rope. They cut the safety lanyard so that the worker was supported on the lowering system. There was no tag line to guide the worker, so Team 1 tied the worker’s feet together and his hands to his body with webbing to minimize the possibility of his extremities becoming snagged on the tower.
The tower was of a uniform width and did not taper from the rescue point to the ground. Since there was no wind, the worker was lowered vertically. Carr, descending on the ladder, monitored the descent to the 855-foot level as the worker was lowered.
Team 2 arrived and set up its lowering system, which was identical to Team 1’s except for the anchor point. Team 2 anchored its pulley system to the external horizontal tower structure and the braking system several feet below on an internal structure member. Team 2 awaited the first lowering of the worker by Team 1.
At 2102 hours, the worker was lowered to Team 2 at the 855-foot level. The sun had slipped just under the horizon. Ground support personnel turned on the ground lighting and aimed it skyward to light up the tower. The moon cast its shining light across the area, and the team turned on their helmet lights. The teams reported good visibility.
At 2115, the worker was at the 855-foot level with Team 2, who found the worker just out of reach. They used a carabiner on a webbing and tossed it between the worker’s legs and pulled the worker the few inches they needed. Team 2 completed the transfer by attaching its rope to the worker’s harness D-ring with a carabiner and taking up the slack on the lowering system.
Team 1, who had paused while the transfer connection was being made, lowered the worker’s weight onto Team 2’s system. Once the weight was transferred, Team 1’s rope was detached, hoisted back up to the team, and coiled before descent. Team 1 derigged its equipment, retrieved the remaining portion of lanyard from the worker’s safety system, and descended to the 585-foot level, where team members would then rerig the lowering system in anticipation of the lowering by Team 2.
At 2214 hours, Team 2 lowered the worker to the 585-foot level. Carr again descended the internal ladder to accompany the victim’s body as it was lowered.
At 2228 hours, Team 1 received the worker and completed the transfer with no problems. Team 2 retrieved the rope, derigged its lowering system, and descended to the 320-foot level.
At 2230 hours, Keezer was directed to come down from the tower; he brought with him a 300-foot rope that was no longer needed.
At 2300 hours, Hosek and Jones passed the 585-foot level. Carr stepped back onto the ladder after they passed and again positioned on the ladder to monitor the descent of the victim. The victim was lowered as Team 2 descended under Carr.
At 2335 hours, Team 2 was at the 320-foot level. The wind started to pick up, and the victim’s body was swaying slightly, enough to move him around to an adjacent side of the tower structure about 30 feet above Team 2. Team 1 stopped its lowering to assess the situation.
Team 2 radioed Team 1 that it could move its lowering system to the adjacent side and transfer the victim there. This proved to be beneficial for the final lowering to the platform truck, which now had better access at the tower base and could position in a more stable location on the grass-covered Nebraska sand hill.
At 2345 hours, the victim was lowered the final 30 feet to the 320-foot level, where Team 2 made the transfer to the final lowering system. Team 1 had now completed its work and retrieved its rope and rigging and descended to the base of the tower.
At 2350 hours, Team 2 was ready to lower the worker to the platform truck. Carr again accompanied the worker to about the 200-foot level, where he stopped to manage the lowering line, as the wind was now picking up significantly.
At 2359 hours, the victim was in the platform 90 feet off the ground. The platform operator disconnected the rope and carabiner from the victim’s harness.
At 0005 hours on April 23, the victim was finally lowered to the ground. Haynes, also the designated coroner of Rock County, directed the process to move the victim from the platform to an area for initial documentation.
At about 0010 hours, Team 1 descended past Team 2 and, with Carr, reached the ground. Team 2 derigged its lowering system and allowed the lowering rope to drift to the ground, where ground support personnel retrieved it.
At 0018 hours, Team 2 was on the ground.
AFTER THE RECOVERY
The LFR rescue team rested the remainder of the night in a motel in Bassett and departed for home at 0730 hours. Shortly after takeoff, the team asked the pilot to go by the tower again. The fly-by gave team members a moment to reflect on their efforts; the efforts of other emergency personnel at the scene; and the tragedy that had occurred to the worker, his coworkers, and his family.
It appears that the fall restraint measures the company that owns the tower could have used on this tower were in place at the time of the incident. The failure of the cable is under investigation. I do not know whether the company has initiated any type of buddy rescue system since the incident. At last word, no one has been able to contact the crew company for information pertaining to updated procedures or safety measures.
Lincoln is the capital city of Nebraska, has a population of 225,000, and is situated in the southeastern portion of a largely rural farming and ranching state. We are proud to assist departments in smaller communities in a time of need. The community of Bassett recognized that this incident was beyond its resource capability and reached out for help. Through the cooperative efforts of the Governor, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, the City of Lincoln, and the other agencies and departments involved, we were able to help fellow rescue workers.
Communications towers are located in or near virtually every community in the United States. It is vital to identify the resources available to your community for responding to this type of incident.
RICK KLEIN is a 15-year veteran of the Lincoln Fire & Rescue Department, assigned to the training division and responsible for technical rescue and hazardous materials training. He is the logistics manager for Nebraska Task Force 1 (NE TF-1). He responded with NE TF-1 to the Salt Lake City Olympics in February 2002; the World Trade Center in New York City in September 2001; the DeBruce Grain Elevator in Sedgewick County, Kansas, in June 1998; and Hurricane Opal in October 1995. He is a Nebraska state fire instructor and implemented the Saving Our Own firefighter survival-training course at state fire schools in Nebraska and South Dakota. Klein has an associate’s degree from Southeast Community College (SCC) in Lincoln and was the Fire Fighter I program coordinator at SCC from 1997 to 2002. He is a member of the Fire Protection Technology Advisory Committee for SCC-Lincoln. He served as technical rescue operations officer for the Lincoln Fire & Rescue Department team for this incident.