Water tower rescuer says training was the key

Rescue personnel work at the scene in Lower Providence Township, Montgomery County.
Rescue personnel work at the scene in Lower Providence Township, Montgomery County. (TOM KELLY IV / For The Inquirer)
Posted: December 13, 2012

As he was lowered into the empty water tower to rescue a man dangling 60 feet above the ground, Robert Myers stayed focused on a fundamental principle: Don't look down.

"There wasn't a lot of thought - other than reverting back to training," he said.

Shortly after 11 a.m. last Wednesday, Myers' Norristown fire company received an urgent call from the Lower Providence Fire Department. Two men had been performing a maintenance operation inside an empty water tower on Featherbed Lane when their equipment evidently malfunctioned.

One, Jason Schmidt, 31, had fallen to his death at the base of the water tower. The second, Miguel Martinez, 38, was hanging precariously inside the tower by his safety harness. Dozens of fire and rescue companies were responding.

Myers' Fairmount Engine Company is the only firehouse in Norristown that specializes in rescue efforts. And when his company arrived on the scene, both he and the assistant chief, Dave Keeley, were sent to the top of the tank to figure out how to reach Martinez, who was suspended in midair in the center of the tower.

"It's very uncommon - a high-angle rescue in a confined space," Fairmount Capt. Ryan Colelli said.

First on the list was setting up a three-rope system that would allow a rescue worker to enter the tower and swing slowly to the center to reach Martinez. Emergency personnel had to assemble teams on top of the tower and inside from ground level to coordinate the rope system. Separate teams monitored conditions inside the tower - checking on oxygen and setting up fans to pump in fresh air.

Myers was selected to make the descent.

"I was just lighter than the other two guys on top of the tower," he said, laughing.

It took 90 minutes to set up the rope system, and a tense, nerve-racking half-hour to get Martinez down. The maintenance worker - who had seen his colleague plummet to his death - was calm when Myers reached him.

"We did our best not to bring [Schmidt's death] up," Myers said. "The overall problem was figuring out how to get him from that height to the ground. He was really calm - just grateful to see somebody else."

Above him, the maintenance workers' equipment - cables, wires, and the suspended platform the men had been standing on - dangled from the top of the tower. The firefighters at Fairmount aren't sure how Martinez's equipment failed and won't speculate on it.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accident. The two men were employed by Corrosion Control Corp. of Salem County, N.J., with which OSHA has had previous encounters.

Martinez was transferred to a stretcher and taken to Paoli Hospital. He had spent three hours in midair but was released from the hospital shortly after his ordeal. He has not contacted the Fairmount Engine Company since his rescue, but the firefighters say they understand. Efforts to interview him were unsuccessful.

After the rescue, Myers, Keeley, and Colelli were back to business as usual, responding to a building fire in King of Prussia on Friday and palling around with other firefighters at the firehouse on Main Street.

All three have served as volunteer firefighters for more than a decade - Myers works full-time as a firefighter in Washington and volunteers in Norristown on his days off. He spoke nonchalantly about Wednesday's rescue, attributing his own heroics to extensive training.

Still, Myers said, the crew is relieved the rescue went as well as it did.

"None of us would say we weren't nervous," he said. "But when you stop being nervous, that's the day you're going to get hurt."

Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112, at awhelan@philly.com.

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