Alameda Co. firefighters describe rescue of man stuck inside concrete hopper

- When an Alameda County Fire Department Rescue Team received a call about an industrial accident last week they had no idea what they would be facing.

"This was a once in a lifetime call for me. Never been on anything like it before," said firefighter rescuer Simon Gowring.

At about 4:30 last Thursday evening a worker fell into a narrow cement hopper at U.S. Pipe and Foundry in Union City.

When the rescue team arrived, the worker was standing chest deep in dry cement granules as fine as talcum powder, unable to move and barely able to speak. Firefighters call this a confined rescue operation.

Gowring was the first of two rescuers who went down into the hopper. barely two feet wide. He tried to assure the trapped worker.

"You are not going to get stuck. You are not going to die in here. I'm telling him all this stuff because he's stressed. He's hot. He can't breathe," said Gowring.        

The team erected a ladder with a rope and pulley system. Oxygen levels were low. They got a breathing device to the worker. And they built a makeshift wooden platform to stand on. 

"We were very fortunate we had access for an aerial ladder. Other wise it would have taken some time to get a device up there that would be sufficient," said division chief John Walsh.

The cement was like quicksand. Rescuers got a harness around the worker's chest to keep him from sinking into suffocation.  

"The person was in the worst spot he could be in. Limited access. Just getting to him was dangerous," said rescue supervisor Sam Lobese.

Another problem: Perspiration from the worker was mixing with the cement granules creating a caustic cocktail that was burning his skin.

Gowring began shoveling the powdery cement into five gallon buckets. They removed just enough to secure a harness to pull him out and help him down the platform to an ambulance. The rescue took two hours.

"He was exhausted. I don't know how he walked down the stairs. He came down with our help. He wanted to walk down," said Lobese.

The worker was taken to the UC Davis burn unit. The rescue team says they're proud all their hard training has paid off.


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