For the first-in engine company, this inci-dent started out as a single-engine response to a two-car motor vehicle accident with an address in a railyard. For the captain of the technical rescue unit, it presented a 176,000-pound extrication challenge.

The 176,000-pound intermodal crane’s spreaders crushed the pickup truck.

The incident occurred at 0943 hours on the only day of the year there was a heavy snowfall; the railroad yard was covered in melting snow. The driver of a 176,000-pound intermodal forklift could not see that he had driven the front wheel of his rig onto the lid of a vault. In seconds, the concrete lid broke and launched, causing the fully extended loader to topple over. The vault was just big enough for the loader’s eight-foot-high wheel. The loader toppled onto an occupied pickup truck.

In the next millisecond, time expanded for the victim. She was supposed to transport the driver of the loader from one part of the railyard to another. It was a simple and routine task, but following a loud noise and steel’s shrink-wrapping her, her life was to be changed for a long time.

According to the safety officer’s report, the impact of the falling loader crushed the cab and the end of the container pickup device in a knife-like fashion just forward of the windshield and behind the cab. Miraculously, the driver’s life was spared, but she was encased in mangled steel. The dashboard was smashed and pinned the occupant’s legs to the vehicle. The top section of the hoist with the container-latching device came to rest inches from the driver’s body. Its position limited access to the vehicle and tested the skills of rescuers.

The first-in company was surprised to see that the victim was alive. She asked the first-arriving firefighter, “Can you get me out of here?” The firefighter looked at the small pry bar in his hand and said, “I’ll be right back.”

Luckily, a heavy rescue response was en route; it consisted of two engines, an aerial ladder, an aid car, a medic unit, a battalion chief, a safety chief, and a heavy rescue unit.

The victim was alert and talking. The load crushing her legs initially was estimated to be from eight to 10 tons; some secondary reports placed it at up to 20 tons. The intermodal loaders are built on a very wide base and stand about 35 to 40 feet high. They can lift the largest ocean-going shipping containers. After laying an initial 1¾-inch hoseline and clearing the hot zone of bystanders, rescuers planned to lift the load just enough to cut the car from the victim.

Two intermodal loaders were brought in to initially stabilize the load. The truck and spreader of the fallen loader made traditional lifting, cribbing, and shoring difficult; an aerial approach was needed. [Photo courtesy of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department.]

The first task was to stabilize the load, which was difficult because there were no traditional lift points. Lifting from the ground was not an option. Two additional intermodal loaders were brought in to hold the downed loader’s spreader in place from above while rescue technicians planned for and staged equipment. The entire inventory of the rescue squad was pulled: spreaders, hydraulic rams, high- and low-pressure air bags, cribbing, reciprocating saws, and slings.

The cribbing complement carried by the team was not enough; rail workers cut up railroad ties to stabilize the mast. A nylon lifting sling was initially rigged around a cylinder on the low end of the load. However, information provided at the scene suggested that the rigging must “capture” the articulating arm of the spreader, which meant putting the sling through a four-inch-diameter joint. Another sling was attached to the upper part of the spreader. Both loaders were sent to tension in unison. With two 20-ton slings placed on the load, the safety factor was considered 2:1. The overturned loader’s spreader and mast had to be lifted in unison.

At 1104 hours, 74 minutes into the incident, firefighter/paramedics advised that the victim needed to be extricated immediately. The loaders lifted the spreader six inches; cribbing was filled into the void left by the lift; and the team tried to cut away the car, removing the door. The victim was still pinned by the steering column and dashboard. The load had to be lifted higher.

On the second lift, after gaining another six inches, the load crashed. The lower sling broke, causing tremendous dynamic forces to crush the cribbing, dent the thick steel L-shaped anchor (O’Connel) plate, and compress a hydraulic ram. Though crushed, the cribbing held, and the victim did not receive additional injuries. She continued to await rescue.

As a result of the breaking of the 40,000-pound test slings, the rescue crews regrouped to develop a different approach, addressing questions such as, What did this load weigh? How could we recover?

The team rerigged the sling on the cylinder in the same way as it was originally and tensioned the load. This time, the sling held. Operations elected to wait for a larger crane and rigging slings.

Although the Harborview regional trauma center was only four miles away, an AirLift Northwest helicopter was requested and staged at the scene because of concerns about the victim’s major crush injury and traffic delays that may have been caused by snow conditions.

The firefighter/paramedics had updated the victim’s condition to “stable but moving in and out of consciousness.” Even with warm IVs, morphine, and valium, the victim was hypothermic, and her condition was declining. She needed blood. The director of emergency medical services arrived on-scene with whole blood. For the hypothermia, we placed MylarT film about the victim and gave her earmuff-style hearing protection to minimize the noise, thereby reducing some of the stress of her situation.

Rescuers had to manage numerous moving parts, rigging procedures, and shoring points while considering safety and the victim’s medical condition. In the initial lifting attempt, 40,000-pound test slings failed, but the cribbing protected the victim from additional injuries.

Since it was clear early in the incident that a heavy crane might be needed, one was ordered within the first 10 minutes. A representative of the crane company coordinated operations involving the crane and provided technical advice throughout the incident. The crane crews, which had been snowed out that day, were recalled. The closest crane company yard was 10 minutes away and had a 70-ton crane. After the nylon lifting sling failed, we cancelled the 70-ton crane and ordered a 220-ton crane from a yard 35 miles away. The police escorted it to the site.

Once on-scene, a two-inch steel cable sling was wrapped around the upper part of the crane’s articulating arm. The area was cleared. At 1208 hours, the large crane lifted the load 12 inches. Again, the cribbing was filled in on all sides for the new height, and technicians tried to cut away just enough metal to clear the victim. Her right leg was still pinned under the dashboard and the steering column. It became clear that the intermodal had to be lifted clear of the pickup—an elevation of four feet—to allow extrication. The rescue group leader directed a lift of another six to eight inches, and then another. The spreader separated itself from the pickup. Finally, the pickup was clear of the crippled intermodal!

After two hours and 20 minutes, technicians again labored to crib, shore, and cut out the victim. The steering column was pulled with a hydraulic ram and hardened steel chain. At the same time, the dashboard was pushed with a hydraulic spreader while the cutters were used on the steel of the dashboard. One member had to crawl under the suspended spreader to make the final cut on a piece of plastic that impaled the victim’s knee. With a pull, she was finally free. Fearing the worst from the her crush injuries, the doctor and medics stabilized her, placed her on a stretcher and backboard, and applied MAST trousers while surrounding her with warming material and controlling her airway. At last, she was rolled to the waiting helicopter for the five-minute transport to the medical center.

The victim sustained multiple leg and hip fractures and is expected to fully recover.


  • The sudden and unexpected breaking of a sling with a 40,000-pound lifting capacity was frightening; it fell toward the vehicle and the victim. Fortunately, the shoring stopped the downward travel of the loader’s spreader assembly at the cribbing. This may have happened because the weight between the two lifting forklifts may have been uneven and exceeded the sling’s rated capacity or the rigging strap may have been cut as a result of having been placed over sharp and/or abrasive edges. The most likely cause may have been the rigging and misjudgment of the total weight that had to be lifted. The initial estimate of the weight led rescue members to believe the slings were adequate for the job. The sling that failed was fastened to support a portion of the hoist and to restrict movement of an articulating arm on the container latching assembly. It was attached so that it crossed an edge at a 907 angle.
  • In retrospect, rescuers should have rigged the slings with all four nylon-lifting slings, using a basket hitch from four separate cylinder attachment points. They should have padded the edge to “soften it” or wrapped the sling around a cylinder 10 times the sling’s diameter.
  • After the incident, the rescue team captain went back to the station, cut up the “light” 40,000-pound (20-ton) slings, and filled out a requisition for heavier 105,000-pound (52.5-ton) versions.
  • Medical care was difficult. The MylarT wrap helped with the hypothermia. We now have fans with propane heat exchangers to warm the victim.
  • There were not enough rescue technicians. They should be assigned to lead areas of responsibilities like stabilization, extraction, equipment acquisition, and planning. Additional truck companies, trained as rescue companies, should have been requested and asked to assist the technicians.
  • The cribbing provided the margin of safety required for this incident.
  • Using commercial equipment and expertise capable of dealing with a load of this weight and size was critical to our success. Integrating medical and rescue specialists who remained focused on the victim prevented her injuries from worsening.
  • The effectiveness of the standard “lift an inch and crib an inch” was evident during this incident.

JON OLSON is a lieutenant assigned to Engine 27 in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, where he has served for 11 years. He has been a member of the technical rescue team for nine years and is a confined space and rope rescue instructor. He was the first-in officer on this response.

A.D. VICKERY is interim assistant chief of operations and a 35-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department. He is a task force leader of the WA-TF-1 FEMA US&R team. He was the incident commander at this incident.

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