Lt. Jack McAllister and the members of Rescue Co. I had been assigned to the Vista Hotel by the command post. When they entered the lobby, they were told by building personnel that some workers on the lower levels could not be located. The smoke condition in the hotel lobby was light, but the smoke rising from the stairway was heavy and obscured visibility
Rescue 1 proceeded down the smoke-filled stairway to the B-l level. While searching the rooms adjacent to this corridor, Firefighter Kevin Shea and Firefighter Gary Geidel heard someone calling for help. The sound seemed to be coming from the garage area, and both firefighters started moving toward the call for help, stepping over and onto piles of rubble as they went. Visibility was extremely poor in this location.
Suddenly, Shea fell some 40 to 50 feet through the rubble and fire.
All rescue firefighters are equipped with portable radios; and as soon as he could, Shea transmitted a “mayday” signal over his radio. Then he crawled away from the fire to a safer location. Geidel called out to Shea and told him he was going for help. He went to the hotel lobby and informed me that Shea was trapped and a hoseline was needed immediately, as Shea had fallen in proximity to the fire in the hole.
Firefighter Shea’s fall was a long one—some 40 feet. The smoke condition in the crater was such that visible contad with Shea was impossible.
(Photo by FDNY Photo Unit.)
Meanwhile, McAllister tried to maintain contact with Shea by leaning over the edge of the crater and holding his radio over the pit. (Portable radios do not function well in concrete and steel-reinforced areas below grade. Line-of-sight communication is required; we routinely use relay transmissions for subway operations. )
I was placed in command of the firefighter rescue subsector at the below-grade levels of the Vista Hotel. The rescue effort to locate and remove Shea was complex and dangerous due to many factors:
- Initially; we did not know how to get to his location, as units could not see him due to the smoke condition.
- We did not know the depth of the crater.
- We knew there were fires burning around him, but the extent of the fire in the crater was unknown.
- There was a possibility of additional collapse and further injury’ to rescue personnel.
Initially, the only units available to Vista Hotel command were engines 205, 55, and 204. I directed these engine companies to stretch a 2’Ainch line from a standpipe connection in the hotel lobby down the stairs to the B-l level and to the edge of the crater.
I then assigned Chief Richard Rewkowski, Battalion 32, the task of supervising the rescue attempt from the B-1 level. Rewkowski, accompanied by Lt. McAllister, made his way down to the edge of the crater by following a search line stretched by Rescue 1. They made verbal contact with Shea.
Conditions at this point were severe, with dense, black, irritating smoke escaping from the fires still burning below. The concrete edge of the crater was jagged, and broken pieces of reinforcing rods protruded out over the void. Rewkowski surveyed the situation and decided to attempt to reach Shea by lowering a firefighter down to his location. By this time, additional units arrived at the scene and were dispatched from the hotel lobby command post to the below-grade area.
I assigned Squad 1. commanded by Lt. John Fox, to attempt the rope rescue and directed ladder companies 101 and 6 to assist by clearing the area of debris and providing portable lights. As the ladder companies and the squad prepared for the lifesaving rope operation, the engine companies worked to get their hoseline into position.
The smoke continued to be a problem, along with the high noise level from broken water mains and activated car alarms. Through the dense smoke, members could see fires burning at many different locations. In light of these severe conditions, I assigned Chief Anthony Adamo, Battalion 8, to assist Rewkowski in supervising operations. Lt. Fox knew the extreme danger involved in attempting this rescue. He chose to be the person lowered.
There was no substantial object to tie off to. It was decided to create a human anchor. A firefighter took the turns on the life belt and sat down on the concrete in proximity to the crater. Two firefighters held him by placing their arms around his chest and shoulders, and another firefighter placed his body over the anchor firefighter’s legs. Other personnel held the other end of the rope.
Fox crawled backward toward the crater’s edge as a member held the antichafing device in place at the edge. Fox had to maneuver over the protruding reinforcing rods before he dropped into the pit. His weight caused the concrete slab to tilt down toward the crater, and he dropped several feet. With the shift in the slab, Rewkowski moved as many people back from the edge as possible as Fox was lowered to the crater floor. Fox, climbing over debris, located Shea and then informed Rewkowski of his position.
While the rescue attempt via rope was being conducted, Rescue Company 5 was assigned to find another way into the area. Personnel proceeded down a stairway to the B-2 level and started to search for Shea. In the process, they found and removed an injured civilian.
Firefighter Jack Tighe of Rescue 5 managed to make his way through and over the debris and burning cars into the pit where Shea lay injured. He arrived soon after Fox and together they quickly examined the injured firefighter. They decided to move him out from under the tilting concrete slab and away from the broken, gushing water mains. Fox called for a stokes basket to remove Shea.
It was decided to use 20-foot straight ladders to build ramps over which the basket could be moved upward to a safer area. Members of Ladder 15 and Rescue 5 entered the crater and completed this task. By guiding the basket along these ladders, they were able to slowly bring Shea up and out of the crater.
Numerous units were involved in this complex and lengthy rescue. The method used was unconventional and dangerous. It was successfully completed due largely to the competency, bravery, and leadership demonstrated by the firefighters, company officers, and chief officers at the point of operations.
Originally ran in Volume 146, Issue 12.