What started with a distorted 9-1-1 call quickly turned into a high-angle rescue for Washington State rescuers.
The initial 9-1-1 call first went to the Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA) Communications Center. The call was then routed to the Lakewood Fire Communication Center in Lakewood, Wash., which handles fire and EMS calls in Pierce County. The call, which was placed from a cell phone, kept breaking up, but the dispatcher was able to decipher that there were three injured persons, one of whom was not breathing, at the bottom of a waterfall. With some additional information, the call was dispatched as a high-angle rescue at the base of Victor Falls.
On July 16, at 1722 HRS, East Pierce Fire and Rescue dispatched Medic 11, Engine 12 and Battalion 11. All three units were en route at 1723 HRS, arriving on scene just four minutes later. Battalion 11 assumed incident command and immediately requested that Rescue 13 and Ladder 13 be added to the call. Engine 11 was also added, and all three extra units arrived shortly thereafter.
The Victor Falls rescue site access at the top of the falls was 100 feet from the road and in a very heavily wooded area with thick brush. The falls were running heavy after recent rains, and the ground was very slick from all the moisture. From their vantage point at the top of the falls, first responders could see three people huddled on some rocks at the bottom of the falls. Two of them were yelling for help.
Bystanders reported that the three individuals, one male and two females, had been standing on the south side of the embankment above the falls when one of them slipped. Another person attempted to catch that person, but they also slipped and both fell approximately 50 feet to the base of the falls. A third person slid down to them.
The responders quickly devised a rescue plan: Send two rescuers down to the bottom to make a quick assessment and then haul the patients to the top of the falls.
Two rescue technicians, one from Engine 11 and the other from Engine 12, found a less-steep area for moving down-canyon toward the patients, anchored a rope and dropped it down. The drop was not steep enough to need a rappel device, so they each placed a Prusik safety on the rope and descended into the canyon at 1746 HRS. As the two rescuers made their way down to the patients, responders at the top of the falls began exploring the best way to perform the rope rescue.
After reaching the patients and conducting their assessment, the two rescuers at the bottom reported they had one “red tag” (a patient who needed to be packaged in a litter and hauled to the top via high-angle rescue), one “yellow tag” (apparent arm fracture and possible litter patient, depending on further evaluation) and one “green tag” (able to walk out on their own).
Back at the top of the falls, rescuers recognized that their rope-rigging options were limited by the heavy brush. Fortunately, riggers did find a spot in a less-dense area where visitors had worn a path through the brush. This provided a clear view of the area and the large, healthy Douglas Firs that could be used for anchors.
The riggers wanted to set up the system so there would be no problems in getting the litter over the top edge of the cliff. As such, using a tree at the edge, they rigged a high point with a pulley. (They did have an Arizona Vortex if needed, but they felt that using trees would be a quicker fix.)
From the tree with the high point, rescuers went approximately 15 feet to another large tree and set a change-of-direction pulley. From there, they ran the rope along the path and parallel to the cliff edge to another tree about 50 feet away. There they set an anchor for their haul system using webbing in a wrap-3, pull-2 configuration.
By now, personnel from other organizations had begun arriving on scene. This included law enforcement officers from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, and members of Tacoma-Pierce County Search and Rescue and Orting Valley Fire and Rescue. So with plenty of personnel available, rescuers opted for a 3:1 MA (“Z-rig”) haul system. This would provide about 25 feet of haul before having to reset, meaning a fairly quick and efficient haul of the patient to the top of the falls. Rescuers also set a belay system, constructed of pulleys and tandem Prusiks. At the ends of both the haul line and belay line, they tied double long-tail bowlines.
At 1820 HRS, with the rope system rigged, rescuers used a brake bar rack to lower a rescuer and litter with EMS gear over the edge. The litter and rescuer landed on the side of the creek away from the patients. Despite the heavily flowing water, the three rescuers were able to get the litter across the creek.
The male patient, who was the “red tag” patient with a left-side head injury, was conscious but cold. He was wrapped in blankets, provided with C-spine stabilization and placed on a backboard wearing a full-body harness. He was then secured in a steel-frame basket-type litter with a mesh bed. A pre-manufactured bridal was attached to the litter rails. The bridal was attached at the top to a high-strength O-ring. The two double long-tail bowlines—from the haul line and the belay—were interwoven and attached to the O-ring. The tail of one bowline was clipped into the patient harness; the other tail was attached to the frame of the litter. The litter tender was attached to the O-ring with an adjustable Prusik so he could adjust his height in relation to the litter. And at 1840 HRS, the litter was ready to be hauled.
At 1916 HRS, the male patient was pulled to the top of the falls. He then was detached from the rope system and hand-carried to the awaiting medic unit where he was lifted out of the litter, still on the backboard, and placed on the ambulance gurney. He was loaded and transported to a trauma center in Tacoma at 1928 HRS.
The remaining two patients, who were ambulatory, were taken down-canyon to a less-steep area. They were each placed in a harness and, with assistance, made their way to the top of the falls. They were extricated from the canyon at 1942 HRS. One of these patients was then transported to a nearby hospital and treated for her less-serious injuries. The third patient did not need transport.
By 2028 HRS, all gear had been retrieved and accounted for, and crews were back in service.
Sources: East Pierce Fire and Rescue Firefighter/Paramedic Shawn Wagner and Technical Rescue Team Leader Lieutenant Rich Simmons provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from an account of the incident in BonneyLake-Sumner Patch online.
Lessons Learned/Lessons Reinforced:
Firefighter/Paramedic Shawn Wagner provides the following observations:
“When doing a haul situation such as this one, don’t commit too many rope techs or personnel down below with the victims. A lot of hands are needed above.
“With multiple jurisdictions that include law enforcement and firefighters with varying qualifications, you need to be able to identify who is a rope tech and who is not and, for example, who qualifies for what. What are individuals qualified for (i.e., who can run a belay and who can be a hauler)? Members in command roles should wear a vest to identify their position (i.e., rescue group should wear the appropriate vest to identify themselves).
“Someone needs to be able to be able to turn over a patient report to the waiting medic (include injuries noted, if the victim worsened since first contact, how far he fell and the sequence of events). This may seem to be the rescuers’ job, but the medic needs that info.”