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Firefighter discuses Rescue of Stranded Window Washers

Aired August 8, 2001 - 14:28   ET


STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Now to Houston where it is equally hot, very difficult to work there but rescuers are hard at work and they now have onboard their special scaffolding, the window washer who has been dangling only by his emergency harness for these many minutes. We have been showing you this rescue under way.

We have on the telephone to tell us more about the rescue, Jack Williams, who is with the Houston Fire Department. Mr. Williams, thank you for joining us.


FRAZIER: Doing well. Can you tell us how this all started and what happened?

WILLIAMS: Well there were two window washers on a 10-12-story building taking care of some business here. It looks like one end of the scaffolding, the cable must have broken loose or broke loose from a bracket. The scaffolding fell from a horizontal position to a vertical position being held on one end.

One of the window washers stayed with the scaffolding. He is on the top end of the scaffolding standing on some railings. And the other window watcher remains secured to a table on the opposite end of the scaffolding that actually fell. We have, since our conversation, we have a tower ladder that has gotten to that individual. They have him in the basket on the tower ladder and we will bring him down in a few minutes.

We have rescue crews on top of the building that have lowered lines. They are going to try to secure both of these individuals so there's no further chance of them falling and then we will work on getting the other individual off the scaffolding.

FRAZIER: We are looking at pictures, Mr. Williams, as you speak to us of this scene. What I thought was one of your ladders extended straight up and down, in fact must be that scaffolding you were describing us to us. There is a window washer on one end of it and some yellow buckets and things midway. Is that the piece of equipment you're talking about?

WILLIAMS: That's correct. If you look at that, that's a scaffolding should be horizontal. Right now it's vertical. It is right on the edge of the corner of the building. The yellow object is a water container, actually, for these guys.

FRAZIER: How confident are you, since one cable snapped, that that is not going to have the other cable snap?

WILLIAMS: That's one of the reasons we're putting our own lines on the two guys. We don't know that that is not going to happen. Our first concern is to get the guys out of harm's way. We have a line on the other individual on the scaffolding. We do have him secured with one of our lines.

FRAZIER: Then let me ask what may be a stupid question: Why not just hoist him up, then?

WILLIAMS: Because we don't know the condition of their cables, first of all. Secondly, the line we have on right now is just a safety line. We want to be sure we get safety belts on these guys to bring them up. And we may end up putting a guy over the side also to make sure that he is secure and can be brought up to the top of the building.

FRAZIER: Now, it looks like you have an awful lot of equipment there. How long has this been going on?

WILLIAMS: This has been going on probably for 30-45 minutes. I don't have a dispatch time with me, but we have been out here 30-45 minutes.

FRAZIER: That is a very rapid response. Is your plan to use the same basket we just saw taking away the first window washer to rescue the second?

WILLIAMS: I don't think we are going to be able to get to him with the tower basket on the other individual that is still on the scaffolding. That may present a problem in what will happen. We are probably have to come over the top of the building and send someone down. Get this guy secured and then get him off the building.

FRAZIER: And do you have people who train in that sort of rescue?

WILLIAMS: Most definitely. Yes.

FRAZIER: But you are putting your own people at considerable risk, then?

WILLIAMS: We are but we take the maximum safety precautions. We are going to make sure the lines we use are appropriately sized and they are appropriate lines for this. They are going to have the correct harnesses on there. These guys have received considerable training. This is what they've trained for.

This is not the first time that we've had to do this. They will go over and one of the things they may do, they could also bring the guy -- lower him down to the tower ladder to get him off. Right now that will be their call once they get to him and see what they need to do. FRAZIER: Have you received word from the rescuers on the emotional condition, never mind the physical, of the first window washer who is now in that bucket number 6 there?

WILLIAMS: No, I sure haven't. I'm sure they are scared to death. I certainly would be. We will be able to talk to this one individual. The other guy looks like he is pretty secure up there right now. But we just want to be sure he will not go further than what he is.

FRAZIER: You have to wonder if his knees aren't going to shake so much he'd shake right off that platform, he's got as a little bit of a support.

WILLIAMS: Well that's -- that's true. That very well could happen. That's why one of our first concerns was to get the next ropes on these individuals and get them secured so that if for whatever reason, if they passed out or hat had other problems, that they are not going anywhere, that we had them secured with our lines.

FRAZIER: This leads to the question about the kind of work these window washers do in those scaffolds and I would presume they fall under somebody's safety inspection on a regular basis. Is that something that the fire department undertakes?

WILLIAMS: No, we don't do the inspection of the cables and stuff. That comes under a different organization. We do this occasionally. We have to come out and get these guys for whatever reason. Sometimes the winds out here just get incredibly high. It puts a lot of stress on those cables when they get to rocking around up there. There's a lot of things that could have happened.

FRAZIER: What are the conditions today? It doesn't look too windy right now.

WILLIAMS: Actually right now, I don't know if you can see it, there is a little front coming in that...

FRAZIER: With rain.

WILLIAMS: Yes, it looks like some rain might be headed over this direction. Actually the wind has picked up since it moved this direction. It kind of moved out of the southwest across here. Hopefully we are not going to get any bad weather out of this until we get them off.

FRAZIER: It's clearly visible the rain that is moving in. It is blowing almost sideways in these pictures so there is some wind moving that water.

WILLIAMS: I can see the dark clouds. I can't see the rain because there are other building around where I am standing, so. But it is starting to rain just a little bit right now.

FRAZIER: It has to complicate life as we watch one of your rescuers, not repelling, but climbing backwards down on his own harness to try to reach that second window washer. He is one of your people?

WILLIAMS: Yes, he is one of our people and they are going to let him down, and what he is going to do, if you see him, he has an extra belt. he is going to put that extra belt on this guy and then they will bring him upstairs.

FRAZIER: The plan now is to go back up rather than plan B, which you mentioned as an alternative which would be to lower straight down.

WILLIAMS: Yes, I am not sure they can lower him down because the scaffolding is right underneath him and that is going to cause a problem. They will get a belt on him though they will probably just bring him straight up.

They look in pretty good shape. Both of these guys, I can see one coming down off the tower ladder right now. He looks in pretty good shape just from seeing him here so hopefully everything going to be OK.

FRAZIER: The interesting thing about all this new construction and Houston certainly does have a lot of it, is that you've either got to come up from the ground or down from the roof. There never seems to be any window that you could open for a rescue.

WILLIAMS: No, most of these window are sealed windows. They are not operable windows and most of your high rise buildings are that way. I don't know of any high rise building that have operable windows.

FRAZIER: How do you feel about that from a safety and fire fighting point of view?

WILLIAMS: It's actually a pretty good deal. You get operable windows then you are getting into the other scenarios and people could open them up on higher floors and if they are not doing things safely then you have the possibility that they are going to fall out or something is going to happen to them, so...

FRAZIER: Or vent the fire, perhaps?

WILLIAMS: Yes it works both ways. And this individual they just brought down he is walking down off the ladder tower so he looks like he is in real good shape.

Our EMS crew will evaluate him and make sure he is OK.

FRAZIER: So you have people on the ground there who can take a look at him right now?

WILLIAMS: Yes, they will be doing that right now as he is getting off the tower ladder. We have EMS crews there right now.

FRAZIER: You have to be impressed that he is actually walking, that his knees can support his weight after this episode.

WILLIAMS: I agree. FRAZIER: On the way up, these two look just as cool as they can be. So is this the sort of thing that your people do on a regular basis, or is this a special unit of your department?

WILLIAMS: These guys are assigned to our rescue squads. We have two heavy rescue squads, and this is what they do. they do this among other things. They do (UNINTELLIGIBLE), below ground rescues, they do a lot of stuff but this is one aspect of their training that they do and this is what they are getting paid to do and this is what they wanted to do, so they have the skills to do it and if you keep watching, they are going to do a good job, they are going to do it safely. The main thing is that we get everybody secured and we do do it safely, we don't get anybody else hurt. That's what they are going to do.

FRAZIER: Did you ever think of bringing in a helicopter on this? Do you own that kind of equipment? Or is everything you have...

WILLIAMS: We don't have a helicopter but getting a helicopter in this narrow area is really not an option. They are supposed to -- it's easier to do off the top of the building. Things are a little more secure on top of the building. You don't have to worry about wind blowing them around as you would a helicopter. He has to remain stable. It's just safer to do on this particular item.

FRAZIER: When you begin to do a postmortem on this episode and what might have happened, is it your experience there in Houston that these are staffers of the Baker Hughes Company, which has its name on the building, or are these outside contractors?

WILLIAMS: My understanding, they are an outside contractor just doing the window washing.

FRAZIER: Any kind of history for that company and this team?

WILLIAMS: I don't have that information. Don't have any at all.

FRAZIER: Mr. Williams, thank you for bringing us up to date on this. We would like you to stand by as we continue to monitor it. We are going to step away for just a minute without losing you, I hope and turn to Donna Kelley with our other breaking story thanks.



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