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.
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.
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.
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.”