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High-wire rescue on tower’s 13th floor was job coveted by Florida firefighters

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Hanging 13 stories high on the hook of a crane while a wicked wind threatens to slam you into the side of a building may not be anyone’s idea of fun.

But for members of the West Palm Beach Fire Rescue’s Special Operations team, there’s nowhere they’d rather be.

Take Chase Daniels.

The 34-year-old firefighter from Palm Beach Gardens was selected Thursday afternoon to accompany an injured construction worker on a precarious descent from the 13th floor of One West Palm, a tower just north of the Palm Beach County Courthouse.

With dozens of witnesses on the ground capturing the rescue on their cellphones and television cameras rolling, Daniels was tasked with keeping the injured man calm and providing medical attention while dangling more than 130 feet off the ground.

“It’s not as scary as you think it is,” Daniels said Friday. “I would rather do that than go on a roller coaster at the fair.”

Thursday’s rescue began at about 12:40 p.m. after an unidentified man was injured when a wall under construction fell on his upper body.

The man was pulled from under the wall and strapped to a rescue basket, but crews were unable to bring him down in a construction-site elevator because of where the incident occurred, according to a Fire-Rescue official.

Daniels was tabbed to “go over the edge” with the patient. The specific role Daniels played is referred to in firefighter-parlance as the “attendant.”

“That is the job everybody wants,” said Battalion Chief Danny Collazo. “As a firefighter, you take calculated risks for the benefit of saving others. So when that opportunity arises, everybody wants it. The reason he got it is because he was prepared for the moment.”

Said Fire Chief Diana Matty: “That’s a very coveted spot for the people on that team. We get so few of these types of calls that to get that key spot in such a dangerous rescue is an honor for our people. He definitely did not draw the short straw.”

Daniels, hired in December 2012, is one of around 40 city firefighters with advanced technical training to effect high-risk, difficult rescues in circumstances that include structural collapses, confined spaces, vehicle extrications and “high-angle” rope rescues like the one performed Thursday.

Matty said anyone who wants to join the special operations unit needs 400 hours of training “just to get in the door.”

Team members, housed at the rescue station on Congress Avenue near Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, get hundreds of hours of additional training annually for the rare, but always dangerous, rescues.

Daniels said he’s rappelled off buildings often in training, but Thursday’s rescue had an added degree of difficulty because “there was nothing to anchor to and nothing you could safely say was secure enough to rappel off the side.”

Instead, Daniels and the patient had to be lowered by a crane operator whose sight-line was blocked, requiring the aid of “spotters.”

Gusty winds, measured at 33 mph at Palm Beach International Airport while the rescue was taking place, made things even more dangerous.

“Tag lines” held in place by firefighters on the ground assured that the basket and Daniels wouldn’t be blown back into the building.

The construction worker was taken by ambulance to St. Mary’s Medical Center. His condition was unknown Friday but West Palm Beach Fire Rescue officials said Thursday they were hopeful of a “happy ending.” The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirmed Friday it was looking into the incident.

“We took care of a person that was injured 13 stories in the air and brought him down under high winds while the TV cameras were rolling,” Matty said. “That was a lot of pressure. That’s when people excel.”

Matty said the rescue is one the special operations team “will not forget.”

Daniels, who graduated from Dwyer High School in 2004 and finished in the top 20 of the 2011 and 2012 CrossFit Games, downplayed his role and praised that of his colleagues who tended to the patient “and got the whole system together of how we were going to go over the edge.”

“My job was probably the easiest part of it,” Daniels said.

jmilian@pbpost.com

@caneswatch

This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.