Florida Firefighters Manage Challenging Trench Rescue

An Aug. 14 trench rescue in Clearwater, Fla., initially seemed fairly routine; however, the situation quickly changed, challenging rescuers to adapt to changing conditions and put their training to use.

Responding to the Scene
At 0823 HRS, a 9-1-1 call came in reporting “a man stuck in a hole.” The Clearwater Fire and Rescue Department initially dispatched Rescue 47 (medic/ambulance), but upon receiving additional information en route, Rescue 47 requested Engine 47 as well.

When Engine 47 arrived, it sized up the situation and immediately called for a full technical rescue operation. This call dispatched the four-county technical rescue team, which included Technical Rescue 48 (Clearwater), Technical Rescue 42 (City of Largo), Technical Rescue 34 (City of Pinellas Park) and Technical Rescue 4 (City of Saint Petersburg). CL610 (Clearwater special operations chief) responded as well.

The entire response ultimately included Heavy Rescue 4 (City of Saint Petersburg), Rescue 4 (medic/ambulance), Truck 48 (Clearwater), Squad 51 (Clearwater), Engine 1 (City of Saint Petersburg), LR49 (Clearwater EMS supervisor), District Chief 48 (Clearwater), CL320 (Clearwater training lieutenant), Truck 45 (Clearwater), Rescue 33 (City of Pinellas Park), Truck 42 (City of Largo), Engine 45 (Clearwater), CL600 (Clearwater operations chief), Technical Rescue 204 (Pinellas Park special operations chief) and CL300 (Clearwater training chief).

When units arrived on scene, they found a construction worker trapped in a trench, waist-deep in the muddy soil.

What Went Wrong?
A construction company had been installing 60″ concrete drainage pipes. Some employees were working in a trench box that was approximately 25 to 30 feet wide. One employee, a 57-year-old man, was working outside the trench box to install “well points” (pipe driven vertically into the wet soil to de-water it) when the outside wall suddenly sloughed in on him.

Soil conditions and recent weather contributed to the incident. As with much of Florida, the soil around Clearwater is typically sandy. That, combined with a tremendous amount of recent rainfall, resulted in extremely liquefied soil.

The worker was trapped up to his waist, his head was about two feet down from the top of the trench box, the hole he was in was about six feet deep, and the lip of the trench was about 18 inches away from the trench box at the top and 12 inches away at the bottom.

Complications Arise
When units first got on scene, it appeared as though this would be a fairly easy and straightforward extraction. But complications soon became apparent. First, due to the tight space, rescuers could only get one shoring panel in against the edge of the trench. And then, none of their pre-made shores were short enough for the space between the panel and the trench box, so they had to cut the 4 x 4 wood shores down from the top about 18 inches, then gradually taper them to about 12 inches.

At 0911 HRS, rescuers began monitoring air in the trench but detected nothing hazardous. Despite the small area, a paramedic and a rescue technician were able to get into the space, close to the worker. The paramedic found no signs of injury and nothing to indicate a mechanism of injury. The worker had simply sunk into the wet soil and could not extricate himself. He was responsive, talking to the rescuers, and in fairly good spirits considering the situation. The paramedic applied oxygen, and quickly initiated an IV. A ventilation system was also set up to bring fresh air into the trench.

Before extricating the worker, rescuers needed to stabilize the area. But none of their pre-cut bench panels would to fit in the tight space, so they had to cut in half the 4 x 8 sheets of ¾” plywood, then wedge them down into the trench area.

The contractor had wrapped rope around the worker’s chest, with two other workers holding the line. Rescuers left that rope in place until they could get something more secure on him. But it was such a tight space, and with the worker up to his waist in soil, rescuers couldn’t get a harness under his legs, so they replaced the contractor’s rope with one of their lifelines, with a girth hitch around his chest.

Incident command had called for a vacuum truck from the city of Clearwater, but all four of them were far away from the incident. So firefighters continued digging out the worker. There were many fissures inside the trench, as well as lots of water, so rescuers put two pumps into operation inside the trench box.

Just as rescuers thought they were making progress and would soon complete the rescue, it appeared that the worker was moving farther down into the hole. It was not immediately clear how this was happening.

The first vacuum truck arrived at 0951 HRS. The truck operator swung the boom out and put the vacuum hose into the hole—but it wouldn’t suck anything up. The vacuum operator explained that the truck was completely full from the previous work. (It is unknown why he drove to the site with a full compartment.)

A second truck arrived on scene at 1001 HRS, but had the same problem—it was also full. At this point, rescuers were asking themselves, “What else can go wrong?”

That question was quickly answered when one of the firefighters said to the IC, “I feel like the ground pads are sinking.” There was a quick assessment, and rescuers determined that the soil was so liquefied that it was seeping in from the back of the panel.

Firefighters took two boards (12 x 12 x 6) and started sliding them down behind the panel to try to prevent additional soil from coming in underneath the panel. There was so much liquefaction that the soil was almost flowing like water. Rescuers continued to dig.

The third vacuum truck arrived at 1003 HRS. Though it had a smaller capacity, this one was empty so it was able to begin vacuuming up the watery soil. The rescuers checked the hole again. The worker’s feet were about at the bottom of the trench box, meaning he had sunk down another four feet. But rescuers were now making progress.

Rescuers were now able to free one of the worker’s legs, but it was such a tight spot that they couldn’t immediately get down to free the other leg. The IC had two other workers get inside the trench box and begin digging out underneath it. Within about five minutes, they were able to free the worker’s other foot. The worker exclaimed, “I’m free!”

Earlier, rescuers had placed a folding attic ladder in the space, the only ladder that would fit in the tight area. The worker started to climb the ladder but suddenly stopped, unable to move farther up. It turned out that the rope the other workers had put around him earlier had slipped down and become wrapped around his leg, and a panel was pinning the rope to the bottom of the trench. A firefighter was able to get into the space and cut the rope, freeing the worker, but that took another 40 minutes. Everyone was freed by 1139 HRS.

Paramedics cleared the worker for compartment syndrome and other injuries. The worker was in very good spirits, declaring when he emerged from the hole, “I want a beer.”

The worker was transported by ground to Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater.

Sources: Kent Watts, special operations chief for the Clearwater Fire and Rescue Department, provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from an account of the incident on Tampa Bay Online.

Lessons Learned/Lessons Reinforced:
Chief Watts notes the following:

“I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and this is one of the toughest ones I’ve ever run up against. It was not like any other trench rescue I’ve been in, not like any class I’ve ever taken. From the get-go, the cards were stacked against us. It was a real-life emergency. Nobody could ever put it in a textbook. There were so many things that were so odd about it.”

“In usual trench training, they have a beautiful trench, nice clean walls, all the panels fit perfectly; everything’s great. But then this happened, and you have to throw everything you’ve learned out the window. It took a lot of ingenuity by the guys in the hole, figuring out ways to adapt to a situation they’ve never been in before, never experienced before. I think that the most important thing is you have to overcome and adapt to a situation when you find that it’s not like anything you find in a classroom.

“But you still have to have the right training. You have to have that basic knowledge—how the panels work, how to put the panels in, how to put the shores in. All that stuff still comes into play. You still have to monitor and take care of your patient. This one was a non-textbook, nobody’s-ever-seen-it-before type rescue. And one of the most interesting and challenging.

“One additional problem was the weather. The temperature was in 90s, with about 80% humidity. It took a toll on the firefighters working in the hole, and they had to rotate out every 30 minutes or so.

“It was such a tight area that there was no way we could insert a litter or even maneuver in a backboard. It was good that he wasn’t injured. Had he had spine or leg injuries, it would have been much more difficult.”