Helicopter rescue at 100-story smokestack in West Virginia

Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company 
The Baltimore Sun (Maryland)

The call came in to the Cumberland-based crew from more than 90 miles away: An explosion had rocked a 100-story smokestack in northern West Virginia and three workers were trapped atop the burning tower.

The team aboard the Maryland State Police helicopter was to be the rescue squad of last resort.

They had trained extensively for difficult missions. Troopers had hoisted drowning people out of raging floodwaters, pulled off-course fishermen from waterlogged boats, freed people stuck in treetops. Yet there had been nothing like the spectacular rescue they faced Saturday night outside Moundsville, W.Va.

"I'm sure that these guys thought that they were done," said Trooper Alex Kelly, one of two flight paramedics.

Kelly spoke yesterday from the state police hangar outside Cumberland, recalling what should have been his night off but instead became a time of high drama and heroism.

Local authorities couldn't get to the men working at the coal-fired power plant. The workers were 1,000 feet in the air, atop a burning wood and metal platform resembling a cork in the opening of the concrete smokestack, where they had been installing a fiberglass lining.

The Coast Guard was contacted, but its closest helicopter was aboard a ship in Elizabeth City, N.C. So they called the Maryland State Police, which had the closest helicopter outfitted with the proper equipment.

The Maryland men tried to picture what they would find when they arrived. They knew to expect an industrial accident. What they didn't understand was that the three workers were huddled in a 10-square-foot space on the platform, the only section not ablaze.

They didn't know that the men, who had been stuck for more than two hours, would be covered with soot, their clothes being eaten away by stray sparks.

They would show signs of hypothermia despite the fire raging around them. "It's like being in the middle of the ocean with nothing to drink," said Kelly, a nine-year veteran of the state police.

An hour after getting the call, the Maryland crew arrived — a pilot, two state police paramedics and two Cumberland firefighters. They landed in a nearby parking lot for a one- to two-minute briefing and to drop off the firefighters, who wouldn't be able to help because the platform seemed in danger of collapse.

Kelly and Trooper Larry Levasseur remained on board to attempt the rescue.

Someone on the ground called the one worker who still had a working radio, telling him the helicopter would lower a basket and each person should get in, one at a time, the most severely injured first.

Pilot David Cooper, a retired lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard, eased the American Eurocopter 365N Dauphin into position and began to hover — no easy task.

It was after 10 p.m., in the inky blackness of rural West Virginia. It was windy. There was smoke coming from the burning tower and steam coming from other towers at the American Electric Power plant.

And somewhere — he wasn't sure where — there could be power lines, which are almost impossible to see in the best of circumstances, he said.

There was also a construction crane nearby - another possible obstacle, but something Cooper could focus on as he hovered in place over the trapped workers.

"Once I got in over it, I couldn't see anything on the ground," Cooper said yesterday. Many of the rescues in his career have been over water: "The good thing about this tower, it wasn't moving."

The first worker got into the basket, which was hoisted on a 295-foot steel cable into the helicopter. The second worker did the same.

But the third had more trouble. Without the others to steady the basket for him, it slipped off the edge of the platform as he tried to get in. It fell out of sight.

After what felt to Kelly like a very long moment, the basket reappeared. The third man had fallen into it and was safe.

"That was the heart-stopper of the night," Kelly said.

The rescue took less than 13 minutes, Cooper said.

It was too noisy inside the helicopter for the rescuers to be able to talk to the three men - identified by the Associated Press as Jay McDonald, 59, of Kanab, Utah; David Earley II, 29, of New Matamoras, Ohio; and Timothy Wells, 36, of New Martinsville, W.Va.

But there were smiles and handshakes all around, Kelly said. "The looks of relief said more than words." None of the three men was critically injured.

A fourth worker, Gerald W. Talbert, was found dead in a cage in which he had been working high inside the giant chimney. A company spokesman said Talbert, 27, had just moved his pregnant wife and two small children from Wheatland, Ind.

The cause of the fire has not been determined.

The survivors were taken to the Marshall County, W.Va., airport about five miles away, where they parted ways with their rescuers.

The Maryland State Police Aviation Command was established in 1961 to provide airborne law enforcement and aerial search-and-rescue support, according to its Web site. Eight helicopter bases are spread throughout the state and staffed 24 hours a day.

The command does 15 to 20 aerial hoisting rescues a year, including one on Sunday in the Chesapeake Bay, in which two men on a small work boat were stuck and couldn't be reached by a rescue boat, said 1st Sgt. Walter Kerr, a supervisor with the aviation command.

The bulk of what the command does involves medical transport: Helicopters rush injured patients to the hospital.

Before Saturday night, the most recent rescue that involved such high drama was in 1999, Kerr said. A state police helicopter plucked 20 tenants off the roof of the burning Charles Center Tower, a 30-story apartment building in Baltimore.

Pilots and their crews go through extensive training exercises twice a year.

Training has changed in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks. While the prior focus was on water rescues, now there is also an emphasis on rescues off buildings and on being able to collect more victims at a time, Kerr said.

Cooper said he had envisioned rescuing someone out of a high-story window, but never Saturday night's scenario.

Kerr credits the training — and the team's common sense — for what he called its "awesome" success Saturday night.

"Their judgment in assessing the needs was phenomenal," he said yesterday. "If at any point they felt the risk was too great, they would have aborted."

Even with all of the training, the Moundsville rescue was something the crew couldn't truly be ready for.

"You really couldn't train for something like that safely," Kelly said. "I don't know how you'd prepare yourself for something like this."

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