At 1600 hours on the afternoon of March 7, 1997, the Lakeland (NY) Fire Department (LFD) was activated for a construction accident at MacArthur Airport, where employees of the Keystone Construction Corp. were working on the dome of an empty one million-gallon water storage tank. The first call didn`t give any specific dispatch information relative to the nature of the accident, the extent of the injuries, or the number of injured. At 1602, Dispatch transmitted that the incident was a structural collapse and several people were injured. Actually, four employees of Keystone were on top of the tank when it suddenly collapsed. The workers and thousands of pounds of concrete were pitched into the cold dampness below.

Assistant Chief William Ryan, Firefighters William Mahoney and Gerard Felitti, and I were at headquarters when the initial alarm was transmitted and were preparing to respond when the additional information arrived. An ambulance that had been returning from a previous alarm was already en route to the scene.

As I proceeded to the location, Ryan requested rope rescue teams from the Bohemia and Hauppauge fire departments. The two firefighters and Ryan then responded on Engine 2. While en route, Dispatch advised me that personnel from MacArthur Airport were on the scene.

On my arrival at the airport, I met LFD Firefighter Robert Galione, who had responded from his home and arrived at the same time as I. We were directed by civilians through a gate to the accident scene. A member of airport security told me that an unknown number of workers had fallen through the roof of the empty water tank and were presently being treated by two employees of the MacArthur Airport Crash Fire Rescue team (CFR). The two CFR firefighters, John Carney and Ryan Tomassone, had descended into the tank approximately five minutes earlier.


Now at the tank, I climbed to a safe location from where I could survey the tank, determine the extent of the collapse, and identify the number of victims. From this survey and information later learned, it was determined that the tank was constructed of concrete and rebar. It measured 32 feet from the top of the dome to the floor and was 107 feet in diameter. Its bottom had thick mud spots and several puddles of water. It was located on the southwest corner of the airport, approximately 125 feet from a perimeter gate. Through the pieces of concrete and twisted lengths of rebar, I could see three visibly injured victims lying on the floor inside the tank, the two CFR firefighters, and one ambulatory victim.

The roof of the dome resembled a giant broken eggshell. Only a portion of the roof remained intact to varying degrees around the tank`s perimeter. A section of the dome roof, approximately 90 feet in diameter, had collapsed under the weight of the four workers. Pieces of concrete were still dangling from rebar. There were obvious cracks in what was left of the roof. A 212-foot by 212-foot hatch opening was at the edge of the roof near the wall. An old wooden scaffolding ladder led down from the hatch into the tank. This was the point of entry the CFR firefighters had used.

The ground sloped up to within three feet of where the tank wall met the roof on what would become the exposure 1 side. Traveling clockwise around the perimeter, the ground gradually sloped down until, on the exposure 2 side, it reached the same level as the bottom of the tank`s interior. On the exposure 4 side, the ground began to slope upward again.


After donning his turnout gear, Galione met me near the hatch opening to quickly discuss the conditions. It was determined that this was a confined space situation but that atmospheric conditions were not a factor. Galione then entered the tank via the scaffolding ladder already in place.

I established a communications command post in the immediate vicinity of the hatchway. Dispatch was instructed to place a priority on the response of three advanced life support (ALS) ambulances. I also confirmed that we needed the rope rescue teams from the Lakeland, Bohemia, and Hauppauge fire departments. The first ALS ambulance and Engine 2 arrived on-scene; four firefighters trained as confined space entrants were now on-site.

Firefighters Felitti and Mahoney placed and secured a portable ladder over the scaffolding ladder to make it a more stable means of entry into the tank. Ryan and Mahoney then entered the tank via this ladder. As more personnel and equipment arrived, Firefighter/EMT-D Steve D`Agostino and Firefighter Ray Smith (a trained confined space entrant and paramedic) were ordered into the tank. All of the rescuers now in the tank were trained as confined space entrants; several of them had emergency medical certifications.

My initial communications with the rescuers inside the tank were strictly to determine the severity of the victims` injuries and the equipment needed to facilitate their removal. It was decided that a tower ladder would be used as a high point anchor. One was requested from the Bohemia Fire Department. Several heavy rescue units with hydraulic and pneumatic tools were called to the scene. Suffolk County Police Emergency Services units provided most of the rope rescue equipment used in the operation.

A staging area for rescue equipment and medical supplies was established near the point of operations so that they would be readily available. Incoming units also had to be staged so they could be tracked and controlled. We called for enough ambulances to cover each of the exposed rescuers as well as the victims. Backup confined space rescue and trench rescue teams were held in readiness. The units specifically requested (ambulances, rope rescue, the tower ladder, and so on) were permitted access to the site. All other units and personnel were staged at an area remote enough from the incident site so that they would not hinder the operation; all were available if suddenly needed.


Plan A, which was not used, called for setting up the tower ladder on the exposure 2 side of the tank, where there was an open area of level ground relatively free of obstructions except for some medium-sized trees. The intent was to have the tower ladder place its platform over the top of the tank and use it as a high point anchor. The immobilized victims would then be placed into stokes baskets and hauled up one by one with a vertical lift and tag lines.

This plan was abandoned for several reasons. First and foremost, the method was unnecessarily risky. We would have had to lift the victims through a web of cables and reinforcing bars that crisscrossed through the open air at the top of the tank. Second, several trees would have had to be cut down to provide a clear path for the haul and tag lines. Not only would this have been time-consuming, but many of these trees were supporting what was left of the tank`s roof. A network of cables that ran underneath the sections of concrete had been secured to the surrounding trees–apparently in anticipation of future repairs on the tank.

I opted for Plan B, which would have the victims removed via the hatch opening (see the article on page 58). It had been determined that a stokes basket and victim could fit through the hatch opening the rescuers had used to enter the tank. The portable ladder already lashed in place would provide enough support to vertically lift the victims out. This method also required fewer personnel.

The tower ladder had to be repositioned. It was placed on the opposite side of the 12-foot-high building that housed the tank`s water pumps. The building was approximately 20 feet in front of the hatch opening (exposure 1 side). The appeal of this location was enhanced by the capabilities of the tower ladder. The ladder itself had a maximum length of 111 feet. The last 16 feet of the boom were an articulating section. Therefore, when the boom was angled up to a certain height, the platform could be “hinged” down to the objective. In essence, the tower ladder was able to go up one side of the building and down the other.

While all of the victims` injuries were considered serious, the true extent of the injuries was not known until the victims were assessed and treated at the hospital. The three victims sustained extensive crushing injuries and multiple fractures. Two of them have since been released from the hospital and are recovering from injuries that included arm, clavicle, and pelvis fractures. The third victim was still hospitalized at the time this was written; he was in critical and unstable condition and had fractured vertebrae. The fourth worker caught in the collapse suffered only minor abrasions and contusions and left the tank under his own power.


The importance of good communications can`t be stressed enough. The incident commander–who operated on the Lakeland Fire Department frequency–experienced difficulty in communicating with the many agencies directly involved in the operation. The Lakeland, Bohemia, Hauppauge, Holbrook, Nesconset, and Ronkonkoma fire departments; MacArthur Crash-Fire-Rescue; Suffolk Police ESU, and Sayville Community Ambulance were all operating in the immediate vicinity of the collapse site. Several radio frequencies were used; not all of them were initially available to the incident commander. The problem was resolved by appointing a fire coordinator to serve as communications liaison between the various agencies and the incident commander.

Immediately calling for mutual aid saves time and can save lives. Commitment to an operation should be made only when the personnel and equipment needed to bring it to a successful conclusion are available.

Training is essential. Familiarity with the equipment and each other will make any operation go more smoothly and safely. The time to realize you don`t remember a knot you learned six months earlier is not while you`re in the middle of a rescue operation. Regularly scheduled drills with other nearby rope rescue teams will reveal the capabilities and equipment that can be provided by each team.

Ensure that your equipment is in proper working condition and ready for rapid deployment. Test it at least once a week. Take care of your equipment so it can take care of you.

Finally, KISS–keep it simple, Sammy! Don`t opt for the more dangerous removal method simply because it is within your capabilities. The risk to operating personnel and victims is not worth it. A successful conclusion to a challenging rescue is satisfying, no matter how the story unfolds. n

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JOHN P. NAPOLITANO is chief of the Lakeland (NY) Fire Department, where he has served for the past 12 years, and a six-year veteran of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department, presently assigned to L-154 in Queens. He is a trained confined space entrant and a member of the Lakeland Fire Department Technical Rescue Team.

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