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Painters Freed after 30-Foot Fall in Water Tank

Monday, October 11, 2010

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Two industrial painters remained in critical condition Monday (Oct. 12) after a dramatic rescue freed them from a Florida water tower after a 30-foot fall.

The painters were working 15 feet from the top of the 160-foot West Elevated Storage Tank in Hollywood, FL, on Friday morning when a bolt on a cable securing their swingstage gave way and they fell 30 feet into the bottom of the elevated bowl.

The painters were identified as Meliso Valderrabano, 22, of Jacksonville, FL; and Carlos Bustamante, 43, of Houston, TX

Valderrabano landed prone and unconscious. Bustamante, despite a shattered leg and hip, used his cell phone to contact his supervisor.

The two men are employees of M Brothers Inc. of Fort Lauderdale. The company declined to comment.

Rescue Planning

Bustamante’s call at 10:57 a.m. triggered a massive, carefully orchestrated six-hour rescue operation by the Hollywood, Broward County and Fort Lauderdale Technical Rescue Teams.

When the teams arrived, venting the tower was the very first priority, to disperse vapors from chemicals the men had been using, said Steele. To do so, several responders climbed the tank’s exterior ladders to open a second hatch in the top and one on the side of the tower, while a ventilation system was installed inside the tower.

A team was assigned to monitor the air quality and ventilation throughout the hours of the rescue.

Meanwhile, down below, another team shut down the blasting machine.

The next problem was how to reach the injured men, get them out of the tower, and lower them 160 feet without causing further injury. Complicating the rescue was the size of the tower’s access hatch—just 24 inches in diameter—which cut off numerous rescue equipment and technique options, including the use of a Stokes Basket.

Making Contact

The team opted for a Reeves Sleeve stretcher, which immobilizes patients with spine and neck injuries from head to toe and allows lifting from tight spaces.

The rescue team also reached Bustamante by cell at 11:19 a.m. and maintained contact throughout the operation by phone and by shaking cables the teams had lowered.

The teams then built a secure device and ran lines on and around the tower to allow two responders to rappel the 4 ½ stories down into the dark shaft  with an extensive amount of medical equipment for immediate treatment.


Throughout, six responders on top of the tower facilitated between the tower and the ground. Valderrabano eventually regained consciousness but told the EMTs that he had no feeling below the waist.  At 3:08 p.m., he was brought out. Bustamante was freed at 3:54 p.m.

After the painters were out of the tower, the team on top transferred them to backboards and Stokes Baskets, which were then slowly lowered to the ground. As the baskets were brought down, yet another team member rappelled alongside, to steady the basket and comfort the injured man. Both men were then transported to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, where they reported in critical condition on Monday. Privacy laws prohibit the hospital from discussing their injuries, but Hollywood spokeswoman Raelin Storey said that Bustamante had suffered a broken hip and that Valderrabano had suffered a spinal cord injury.

Work on the water tower began in August after approval by the Hollywood City Commission in July. The $590,000 contract involved blast cleaning, recoating and other maintenance. The project was to have been completed in December.

Specialty Teams

In all, the rescue operation included more than 30 personnel among the three teams, including command and accountability teams to monitor the operation, said Steele. He praised the efforts of the teams, which had trained together previously and worked smoothly.

However, lack of funding is jeopardizing Technical Rescue Teams—and future rescues—in his area, Steele added. “The funding really stinks,” he said. “These are the calls that you don’t get  much, but when you do get them, you need specialty teams.”

And if the local teams are already at a scene, other teams may have to be summoned from other cities.

“This was a very, very delicate and slow situation, where you have a lot of set-up and ” said Steele. “Without specialty training, you can forget about it.”


Comment from AJAYI OLUWADUNSIN, (10/12/2010, 7:39 AM)

There are safety measure to be put in place before commencement of any task. Truly, accident and injury is preventable .The safety inspector in charge needs to carry out a thorough inspection on any lifting equipment beig used on site and make sure he enlgthened the workers on total safety task instruction. The safety inspector needs to deligently carry out his responsibility and safe life. once again, injury and accident is possible.

Comment from Andrew Mumford, (10/12/2010, 7:54 AM)

These gentlemen were lucky to survive. It appears that independent safety lines were not used by the workers. If independent safety lines were used, the crew and rescuers have to get workers down fast to avoid Harness Hang Syndrome (HHS) which in and of itself is fatal.

Comment from Richard Croft Jr, (10/12/2010, 8:18 AM)

Both the previous comments are Indeed valid. The reality of this situation is that pre-planning, proper training, and constant re-training are a necessity not a luxury. On the rescue and response side of it the number of teams competent to respond to this type of event is not nearly what it needs to be. We need to remain diligent to ensure profit does not take priority over safety.

Comment from Gregory Stoner, (10/12/2010, 9:03 AM)

Once again we see that profits are a greater motivator than human life. The number of things that had to go wrong in this situation is incredible. Lack of training or no training in fall protection. Lack of equipment or no equipment for fall protection. No rescue plan to ensure that a rescue team already trained in that particular situation was readily available. I read what sounded like a permit confined space project that was run by a couple of gypsies. What happened to lowest responsible bidder? This is probably going to cost the taxpayer countless dollars. Remember the 6 P's...Prior planning prevents piss poor performance. Good luck to those workers who will hopefully survive and need future employment.

Comment from Lubomir Jancovic, (10/12/2010, 1:00 PM)

Usually if I was doing high tanks blasting and coating, I was full up tank with a water and doing blasting from the top of water. Experienced sandblaster know how to do it, if not need hit the water bai the air and coating a surface before surface get wet. Less air in the tank is easy changed with fresh air (less contamination inside the tank, less money for equipement, less risk for workers get injured.)

Comment from William Dixon, (10/12/2010, 1:00 PM)

The legalities of subcontracting and certified payrolls, insurance, and safety all aside, these towers must be built with safety in mind, for the rescue workers, and the painters. I will submit again to the AWWA D100 tank committee the basic tank modifications for safety. They include hook off at all ladders, seperate connection points for safety lines (wet interior lines must come through the roof for access and to stop corrosion of the tie-off), 30" manholes in risers where possible, roof railings, interior ladders, and safety climb devices. Wm Dixon PE Esq.

Comment from Car F., (10/12/2010, 3:07 PM)

It appears that there wasn't an Emergency Rescue Plan in place. There is no mention of life lines for the workers or additional tie backs for the swing stage either. I'm not sure what are the requirements in the US, but here in BC [Canada] we are required to a have such a plan in place prior to commencing work. I usually develop the general work plan and include an addendum for the Emergency Rescue Plan, which involves WRITTEN confirmation from the local Fire Brigade and in some cases approval from Workers Compensation Board. Once you've developed a template and have everyone trained, it is easy and not cumbersome at all. There is an additional incentive found in Law: negligence charges and conviction carries a heavy fine and jail, not only for the Supervisor in charge, but all the way up to the CEO.

Comment from paul orvosh, (10/13/2010, 12:12 PM)

Engineering controls for tank design with safety in mind are a very good idea. It appears with no independent safety lines, no confined space program in place, no rescue plan, lack of or no training -- may need alot of engineering to help out this scenario. Training, equipment, programs, policies and laws are in place, but are not being followed or enforced.

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