50 Feet Below Midtown, Injured Worker Is Rescued

The injured payload operator was unable to move and lying in the dirt and water of a cavernous construction area 50 feet below the streets of Midtown Manhattan — a dark, cold ditch far from the firefighters’ grasp.

Getting him out safely, and into a waiting ambulance, would take a fast, organized rescue by the firefighters from Ladder Company 2 and Engine 65. And the payload operator, with his left shoulder hurt and his arm swollen, seemed cognizant of the risks.

“He said, ‘Get me out of here,’ ” said Lt. Peter Blaich, the son and nephew of retired chiefs of the New York Fire Department, who responded to the call for help at the site, at Madison Avenue and East 48th Street, on Thursday afternoon. “His concern was that he was hurt; he wanted to get out.”

The call came in just before 12:30, for a man injured while working on the construction of a Long Island Rail Road tunnel to Grand Central Terminal, part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s East Side Access project. The firefighters went to the nearest aboveground portal over the site where the workers — equipment operators and so-called sandhogs — have been digging through mud and bedrock several stories underground.

They went down an access stairway and found the man, whom officials did not name, lying in “what they call a well hole,” said Lieutenant Blaich, 39, an 11-year veteran.

“That is where they are going to put the escalators,” he said.

The injured worker had been driving a payloader to move earth and debris when it was apparently hit from behind, sending the man about 15 feet to the ground. The collision occurred in a “giant cavern,” maybe 150 feet below the surface, said Lieutenant Blaich, who added that the man appeared to be in his late 40s.

The man’s colleagues carried him up part of the way. When the firefighters got to him, he was conscious, though his breathing was “not great,” the lieutenant said. The firefighters watched the clock and began to work on him.

As the rescue unfolded in the sequestered work space — “like the inside of a cave, like a cavern with bedrock above you, the earth and water and the elements down there,” Lieutenant Blaich said — the sandhogs and other workers gathered around.

They have their own culture, of caring for one another, said the lieutenant, and they were visibly concerned.

In a fortuitous twist, the firefighters from Ladder 2 had recently been trained on how to respond to emergencies in confined spaces or vertical shafts, said Frank Dwyer, a Fire Department spokesman. Because of all the underground construction around the city, fire officials have wanted to ensure that firefighters are prepared for any accidents, Mr. Dwyer said.
The training ended on Jan. 7, Lieutenant Blaich said, and he and his colleagues also received new equipment.

On Thursday, they put it to use.

Hypothermia was a risk, as well as shock. The firefighters were mindful of the so-called golden hour, said the lieutenant, knowing that victims’ chances of surviving a trauma are higher if they make it to an emergency room within the first hour.

The firefighters put a collar on the man’s neck to stabilize him. They put him on a backboard, and then into a metal basket, so they could quickly move him up to the street. The whole operation took no more than 20 minutes, Lieutenant Blaich said.

Mr. Dwyer said the man was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center.

Lieutenant Blaich said that if the firefighters had not had the recent training and the new equipment, including the metal basket, the rescuers might have run out of time.

“This rescue would have taken much longer if we had to go down there and carry him out, like we used to,” he said. “The training definitely is modernized and helped get the person out.”

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