Complex Bridge Rescue for Pittsburgh Firefighters

Complex Bridge Rescue for Pittsburgh Firefighters


On the afternoon of Aug. 2, Pittsburgh (Pa.) area firefighters were presented with a complex and challenging high-angle bridge rescue. The initial call came in at 1620 HRS to the Washington County 911 Center with the report of a man who had fallen 50—75 feet at the Donora-Monessen Bridge. The first units dispatched at 1624 HRS included Mon Valley EMS, and Donora Fire Department (DFD) Ladder 66 and Chief 66.

Initial Confusion
At 1627 HRS, first-arriving units from Washington County realized that the incident might not be in their jurisdiction. The bridge, which is approximately 2,100 feet long, straddles the Monongahela River and connects Washington and Westmoreland counties, but the accident appeared to be on the Westmoreland end of the bridge. To clarify the situation, DFD Chief 66 called Westmoreland County authorities and was told by Rostraver Fire Department Chief 105 to begin operations since they were already on scene.

List of Responders
The list of responding units eventually included Mon Valley EMS team 570, the DFD, the Carroll Township Fire Department, the Rostraver Township Fire Department, Rostraver/West Newton EMS and the Webster Fire Department, as well as Pennsylvania Township and North Huntington technical rescue teams, the Donora Police Department, the Rostraver Township Police Department, the Donora fire boat and the Mon Valley Divers.

Accessing the Patient
The worker had been standing on a ladder, sandblasting steel girders to prepare the bridge for painting when he suddenly fell approximately 50 feet, landing in a safety net. Although a net caught him, the impact of the fall resulted in trauma; the man was alert and talking, but complaining of severe pain.

Led by a project supervisor and a worker, a paramedic and an EMT climbed down a ladder to an overhanging catwalk installed on a lower portion of the bridge and found the worker. After completing a patient assessment, the paramedic established an IV line and administered pain medication.

A Visibility Issue
Meanwhile, rescue units were arriving on the bridge but were unable to get a complete view of the precise recue site because the sides of the bridge were draped in large sheets of opaque plastic to contain the dust and debris from the work. Command solved this problem with a simple solution: They directed the medical team to cut a large hole in the plastic so rescuers could see what was going on.

Rigging for the Rescue
The rescue plan was to lower the patient and a litter tender to the ground using a rope system rigged to Ladder 66, which would allow for flexibility in the lowering, since a direct lower would have landed the patient in the river.

After law enforcement shut down bridge traffic in one lane, rescuers positioned Ladder 66 on the bridge deck and riggers went to work. Using 2″ webbing, they attached a double pulley to the ladder fly. They then ran two ropes through the pulley, one as a main lowering line and the other as a safety line.

They ran the lowering line down to Ladder 66’s back outrigger and laced it into a six-bar brake-bar rack with a hyperbar. They then anchored the rack to the outrigger with a wrap five, pull four attachment, along with a load-releasing hitch.

Next, they ran the safety, or belay, line to the forward outrigger where they had anchored a tandem Prusik belay with another wrap 5, pull 4 attachment.

The main line was attached to a rigging plate with a large steel carabiner, while the tail of the rope was attached to the patient harness. The belay line also went to the rigging plate, but its tail went to the harness of the litter tender.

The team then attached the metal basket litter to the anchor plate using a pre-manufactured litter bridle. They also attached three daisy chains to the rigging plate at the top of the litter bridle. The first two chains provided an extra safety for the patient and the litter tender; the third provided a convenient place to hang additional gear. As a back-up in case they had to haul the litter, the team also rigged two 3:1 M.A. haul systems that could be operated by a haul team.

Making the Rescue
When everything was ready, the team swung the ladder over the bridge and lowered it to the patient’s location. A spotter on the bridge deck helped determine where to position the ladder and the litter.

At this point, the medical team had immobilized the patient to a full-length spine board with Velcro spider straps and had applied a C-collar. Once the litter reached the patient, the team packaged him in the litter.

When the teams were ready, the deck team raised the litter just a bit so it could clear any obstructions. The deck team then swiveled the ladder about 15 feet so the litter would land on the river bank and used the rack to lower the litter, patient and litter tender approximately 50 feet to the ground.

Once on the ground, rescuers needed to haul the patient up an embankment and across railroad tracks to level ground so they could transport him to an ambulance. In anticipation of this last leg of the rescue, the railroad dispatcher had been contacted and directed to halt all train traffic.

The Final Haul
A second haul team on the ground had already rigged a 4:1 M.A. slope haul of the litter. To anchor the main line, they pounded four pickets made of rebar into the ground and laced the heads with 8-mm cord. They then anchored the safety line to a railroad rail. Once the litter was on the ground, the 4:1 haul system was attached to the head of the litter. With six firefighters handling the litter rail, the litter and patient were hauled up the embankment.

The patient was loaded into a Mon Valley EMS ground ambulance, and with the helicopter flight crew attending, he was transported about a half mile on Route 906 to an awaiting helicopter, which transported him to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh at 1835 HRS.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in its Aug. 4 edition that the worker was in Allegheny General Hospital’s ICU with several broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, punctured lung and fractured scapula.

Sources: Mon Valley EMS Deputy Chief Randy Margarcelli provided information for this report. Additional details were taken from The Valley Independent and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This rescue was made even more challenging by the presence of media helicopters. At times, their noise made communications near impossible. They then began to hover even lower, kicking up sand and other debris, and possibly endangering the responders. Finally, rescuers called the FAA, which established a 2,000′ zone over the rescue area and forbade the news helicopters from entering that space. (This zone was expanded during medical helicopter operations.)

The IC informed the news representatives that after the rescue was complete, there would be a press conference in which all the participants would be made available for an interview. Deputy Chief Randy Margarcelli noted that in future similar incidents, they would establish the zone above the rescue area earlier.

There is no single mutual-aid channel for use by all the participating agencies. In this instance, a representative from each agency with their unit’s radio was present at the command center. This helped enormously with coordination among the various agencies.