FDNY: TWO RESCUES IN THE SKY
SPECIAL EDITION RESCUE COMPANY
Like many fire departments, the City of New York Fire Department employs various means of rescuing people from life-threatening situations. These include the use of ladders, fire escapes, interior exits, and adjoining buildings as conditions dictate. As a last resort we employ our Life Saving Rope (LSR). On Tuesday morning, May 14, we encountered such a “last resort” situation that tested our training, our rope rescue capabilities, and our courage. In an extremely dangerous and dramatic situation, we had to perform two separate rope rescues at the same fire—using the same LSR.
TWO VICTIMS, TWO RESCUES
At about 11 a m., Rescue 1 received an alarm via radio for a fire at 723 7th Avenue, a 12-story commercial highrise building. While en route we were informed that people were trapped on window ledges on the 12th floor. Engine 54 arrived, reported a working high-rise fire with a heavy smoke and fire condition on the top floor, and called for additional units. Engine 54 also confirmed reports of trapped occupants.
At this point I made sure that all the members of Rescue 1 heard the reports, and 1 saw they already were preparing the equipment for a possible rope rescue. On arrival, we could see through the smoke two victims at 1 2th-floor windows clinging for their lives—one on the exposure #1 side of the building and the other on the exposure #4 side. We reported to the lobby command post and received orders from Battalion Chief John McDermott to perform the rescues.
As time was of the essence and the elevators were being used by other units, we decided to run up the 13 flights of stairs to the roof. Coming onto the roof from the stairway was akin to running out to the field from the dugout on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Hundreds of people had gathered in the street, and scores of construction and office workers were shouting words of encouragement from adjacent rooftops and office buildings.
I ran to a point on the roof where most of the people were pointing. A 4 ½-foot-high parapet wall encircled the roof with about a three-foot overhang. I jumped onto the parapet, leaned out beyond the overhang, and saw one victim crouching in the window directly below me. It took some loud screams to get his attention, and he finally looked up at me. I tried to reassure him as much as possible, but the immensity of the situation along with the vertigo started to affect both of us.
The other members of Rescue 1 arrived at my position. As per our procedures, Firefighter Patrick Barr, the assigned roof man, prepared to descend on the rope and attempt a rescue. Firefighter Patrick O’Keefe held my legs, and I leaned out as far as possible from the building to better judge the victim’s condition. He was standing in the window and was taking in the full effects of the heat and smoke. He looked up at me with fear and resignation in his eyes. He was in imminent danger of letting go and virtually had only seconds to live.
Harr had climbed up on the parapet with me and was ready to be lowered. Firefighter Kevin Shea, who was to be the lowering man, informed me that there was no substantial object on which to anchor himself. In essence, he would have to bear the brunt of two men—rescuer and victim—and lower them without any safety edge himself. He certainly could be pulled off the roof under the extreme weight, which made the already dangerous situation even more complex.
My decision to continue the rescue attempt under these extreme conditions wasn’t difficult to make. I had ffill confidence in the equipment, but my faith in the raw courage and ability of my men was paramount in my mind. I quickly ordered O’Keefe and Firefighter Bruce Newberry to hold
down Shea as he lowered Barr on the rope. Without hesitation, Shea sat on the roof, bracing himself against the wall with his feet. O’Keefe and Newberry positioned themselves on either side of Shea and held him down. This whole sequence of events took about 30 seconds.
We proceeded to lower Barr toward tile victim. 1 leaned over the parapet and gave directions while those lowering the rope braced themselves against the parapet. As Barr reached the victim, the victim jumped from the window into his arms. The force of this placed a severe impact load on the rope. It caused the rope to stretch and also pulled Shea, Newberry, O’Keefe, and myself to a standing position and toward the edge of the roof. Nobody let go. The members held their positions and stabilized the rope. They then lowered rescuer and victim to the floor below, where they were pulled in the window by waiting firefighters, who had been notified by command via portable radio to expect us.
Wc now had one rescue completed. At this point we knew the following: At least one other victim required rescuing; interior fire conditions had worsened since our ascent to the roof; and due to the heavy fire condition, another LSR had not reached the roof yet (each rescue company carries only one) —meaning that we would have to use the same rope twice.
Barr released the rope from the 1 1th floor, and we quickly pulled it back up to the roof. We commenced operations on the exposure side #4 of the building. It basically was the same scenario as the first rescue, with personnel changes. Firefighter Shea would be lowered this time. Firefighter Ray McCormack of Ladder 24 would be the lowering man, with O’Keefe and Newberry holding him down.
Shea was lowered to the second victim. Me instructed the victim to wrap his arms and legs around Shea’s body. After the victim did as instructed, rescuer and victim were lowered to the floor below the fire (the 11th floor) and to safety.
This concluded one of the most dramatic and unique rescues in FDNY history. It should be noted that during the rescue operations many other units were heavily engaged in a very dangerous and difficult fire suppression operation. Much credit should be given to Deputy Chief Stephen De Rosa and Battalion Chiefs McDermott and Thomas Filner. whose judgment, experience, and tight control of the fire scene were vital to the successful mitigation of the incident *
Originally ran in the July 1991 edition, Volume 144, Issue 7.