Rapid Response: Md. chief details plane-into-power lines rescue operation
Montgomery County crews faced a complex and dangerous scene with a plane entangled in power lines dangling 100 feet above the ground
Seven hours wedged in a high-tension power stanchion … in a plane. This is not a victim rescue we see every day. But we said “all hazards,” right?
That was the situation facing Montgomery County Fire & Rescue crews dispatched to a small-plane crash that left two victims trapped in a plane ensnared in power lines, dangling 100 feet above the ground.
The complexities of this unique rescue effort were detailed to FireRescue1 by Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Chief Scott Goldstein.
At 5:33 p.m. on Nov. 27, multiple 911 calls reported a small-plane crash in Montgomery County, Maryland. The Emergency Communications Center dispatched units to the best-known location; however, the actual scene ended up being approximately 1.5 miles from the originally dispatched location.
Chief Goldstein lives approximately 6 miles from the scene. While the on-duty command staff would be calling him about such an incident, his first notification was actually the power outage at his home. As he began to research the outage on the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) website, the dispatch was lighting up on his computer. The CAD information reported a low-flying plane and a subsequent flash of light and loud boom – but not an exact location.
There was one reliable location from a 911 caller – the plane’s pilot – who reported the crash along Goshen Road, in a densely populated community, at the spot where two 230-kW power transmission paths traverse the area.
The single-engine, four-seat Mooney M20J clipped and cut two lines of the northern-most power-path, then crashed nose-first into the one of the southern-most powerline stanchions. The plane was wedged into the web structure of the power stanchion, over 100 feet above ground, about 50 feet from Goshen Road.
Both occupants of the plane were injured, but conscious and talking to 911 operators.
The standard initial dispatch for a small plane down was sent:
- Paramedic engine 734
- Truck 734
- Paramedic tower-ladder 708
- Rescue squad 717
- Hazmat unit 728
- Hazmat support unit 725
- Battalion Chief 705
- Ambulance 734
- Ambulance 708B
While responding to the incident, Chief Goldstein communicated with the PEPCO emergency response liaison, saving valuable time in getting the correct PEPCO resources mobilized and en route to the call. While both Chief Goldstein and I have been on the scene of many small and large plane crashes, neither of us had seen anything like this before.
Securing the scene is one of the first tasks to handle at plane crashes; however, the dynamics of this scene significantly complicated scene security, specifically, the sliced and dangling power lines from the northern-most stretch, combined with the dangling airplane.
The plane occupants, a 66-year-old male and a 66-year-old female, remained in contact with the 911 center, keeping responders apprised of their conditions. Responders began formulating a plan to reach and extricate the occupants perched 100 feet above.
Battalion Chief 705 served as the incident commander. Assistant Chief Daniel Ogren was working the Battalion position for the shift. Fortuitously for everyone working this call, Chief Ogren had recently left his assignment at the Special Operations Division, where the Technical Rescue Team was housed. He was assisted at the command post by Division Chief Charles Bailey and Chief Goldstein.
As the incident expanded, the following additional units were dispatched to the scene:
- Two medic units
- Technical rescue response (eight units)
- Safety officer
- Canteen unit
- Mobile command unit
- Multiple chief officers
- District of Columbia Squad 2 (Tech Rescue) along with command staff
The rescue plan
Understanding the dangers associated with both plane crashes and power line contacts, firefighters worked with PEPCO to develop a plan for reaching and rescuing the occupants.
The first priority was to ensure that the power supply had been cut. To the average person, that might seem to be enough; however, PEPCO was quick to confirm that static electricity when involved with high-wattage power lines would be deadly, regardless of the power supply being cut. This would require PEPCO to ground and bond each power line to ensure that there was no longer danger for responders or the plane occupants.
The original plan was for rescuers to climb the tower to rescue the occupants, with harnessed victims eventually lowered by ropes. Understanding this dynamic situation, responders developed a Plan B that would involve the use of articulating bucket trucks to reach the location. This was only a possibility because of the relatively level terrain and the proximity to hard-surface access.
As a matter of routine business, PEPCO maintains an on-call contractor to work on the power rights-of-way. Unfortunately, on a Sunday evening, the contractor is not on location, and their home base was nearly two hours away. Having received details of the situation, the contractor asked command for an escort and scale-bypass for their articulating bucket trucks and other vehicles that would have been required to stop at regular highway scale truck stops. Maryland State Police representatives, who are responsible at the state level for aircraft incident investigations, were at the command post and arranged for local resources to provide the escort and took care of the scale-bypass authority. Meanwhile, command requested the dispatch center to locate a local crane with a bucket from their established partner contracts.
The rescue operation
The contractor who had to mobilize personnel and equipment arrived on the scene by 9:30 p.m. By 11:30 p.m., the grounding and bonding of power lines was complete, and the two 180-foot Bronto Skylift trucks were positioned to access the site.
The first bucket with two firefighter-paramedics from the technical rescue team and a contractor were lifted up to the plane. The original Plan B was to first secure the plane with chains or nylon strapping, while the firefighter-medics evaluated the patients from the bucket, then the bucket would return to the ground to retrieve needed medical and/or rescue equipment and return to retrieve the patients. Ultimately, the plane was secured using chains to various points on the plane and the tower.
While the securing of the plane was taking place, the firefighter-medics determined that the patients, while seriously injured, were stable enough to self-extricate. With the understanding that no additional medical or extrication equipment was necessary, the decision was made to secure the plane and immediately begin the rescue.
The responders brought rescue harnesses with them, and were able to get close enough to the victims to get the rescue harnesses attached and for the victims to crawl out of the plane and into the bucket. Due to weight limitations, this was done one patient at a time.
Within one hour of the grounding and bonding operation, both victims were on the ground and being evaluated by awaiting EMS transport units.
Plane removal and incident conclusion
After the rescue, additional units remained on scene for the plane removal operation:
- Paramedic engine 735
- Ambulance 735
By 1 a.m., the plane-removal plan was established. The plan was to separate the plane’s engine, which was wedged into the tower, from the fuselage and to lower both pieces to the ground separately.
As a fire engine and ambulance stood by on the scene, that plan was executed by the contractor and completed by 3:30 a.m.
There were no additional injuries and fire units returned to service.
Scott added that PEPCO did a tremendous job rerouting power through the grid and had most customers' power restored before the victims were even out of the plan.
State Police began to work with all of the requisite agencies to investigate the incident.
While PIO Pete Piringer worked with the international press coverage, Chief Goldstein provided the updates at the scheduled press briefings during the incident. Goldstein said he was very pleased with the response and operation by everyone involved, and spoke highly of the coordination efforts of all personnel on scene.
Goldstein emphasized three valuable lessons from this or other significant incidents:
- Call early for resources you think you might need on the incident;
- Ensure that you have more than just a Plan A and a Plan B for anything this significant; and
- Ensure that you and your staff are ready for large-scale incident expansion, bringing in all of the requisite local, state and federal response and investigation partners.
It is a testament to the culture of professionalism within the Montgomery County Fire Rescue system, and with the response partners they work with, that everyone got to go home this day – a day that every one of these responders will remember forever.