Van teeters above abyss; Firefighters carve their way into van to save driver pinned to ceiling



Photos courtesy Arcata Fire Department

From the 12.12.12 issue


By Jack Durham

Press Editor


A van plummeted 50 feet down a steep embankment off Scenic Drive last week, coming to rest upside down as it teetered atop an old-growth redwood log. The driver was pinned to the ceiling of the unstable vehicle, which threatened to slide further down the hillside into the dark chasm below.

Emergency personnel were called to Scenic Drive south of Main Street in Trinidad at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, What ensued was a harrowing rescue which put firefighters’ skills to the test.

First on scene was the Trinidad Volunteer Fire Department. Arcata Fire Department and Westhaven Volunteer Fire Department were summoned to provide assistance.

The first task was to stabilize the vehicle so it didn’t slide, tumble and roll down the hillside.

“It was on the verge of sliding down the bank,” said AFD Battalion Chief Sean Campbell.

At the time it was dark, and Campbell couldn’t see how far down the hillside went, but below the full-size Dodge van was a “dark hole,” he said.

Firefighters scaled down the hillside and used cables and chains to connect the van to nearby redwood trees. A cable was lowered from a winch on a firetruck and connected to the van.

With the van stabilized, firefighters then went about trying to extricate the driver. This was no easy task.

Had the vehicle had rolled upside down on a roadway, the firefighters would have been able to stabilize it using a variety of jacks and tools. They’d then cut the van’s pillars and remove the driver.

But in this case, the van was upside down atop a giant old-growth redwood log. There was no way to use the usual stabilizing equipment, If the van’s pillars were cut, the weight of the engine would have likely crushed what was left of the cab, and killed the trapped driver.

“It was a unique set of circumstances,” Campbell said. “We had to really think outside the box and improvise.”

Because of the position of the van on the log, firefighters had to work standing on ladders. Complicating the rescue was a drainage pipe located right where the firefighters needed to work. It was gushing 50 to 60 gallons a minute, Campbell estimated.

Firefighters used hand saws and a variety of tools to cut their way into the van without damaging its structural integrity. Campbell said they basically “tunneled their way to the patient.”

As firefighters cut their way into the vehicle to find a way to remove the patient, a crew with Arcata-Mad River Ambulance was reaching inside and providing treatment to the driver for his injuries and to prevent shock.

Meanwhile, up the hill, firefighters were working on an elaborate ropes system that would allow the patient to be raised up to the awaiting ambulance. The system would also be used to bring rescue personnel up the hill.

After about an hour and a half, the patient was finally pulled from the vehicle, placed in a basket and brought up for transport to the hospital. AFD stayed on scene another couple hours to provide lighting for a tow truck which pulled the wrecked Dodge van up the hill.

Campbell said the rescue was one of the most challenging ones he’s ever been involved with. “It’s probably in the top five for difficulty I’ve ever seen in my career,” he said.

The driver was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.


1 Comment

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One response to “Van teeters above abyss; Firefighters carve their way into van to save driver pinned to ceiling

  1. Terry

    Nice writeup Jack, thank you.

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