Inside a Real Rescue With the Chicago Fire Department

Picture everything in your building blowing sky high, the ceiling caving in, and everything landing in a jumbled pile. Now, imagine digging through that pile, perhaps multiple stories of debris, to find a gravely injured colleague.

Welcome to the world of collapse rescue, which firefighters and paramedics may face at a moment’s notice.

“All of that stuff is still there, and we have to tunnel through it,” says Tim Walsh, Chicago Fire Department’s Chief of Special Operations. “Desks, filing cabinets, light fixtures, conduit, heating elements, heating ducts, it all comes down!”

Nowhere was that more evident than last August, when a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District treatment facility exploded on Chicago’s far southeast side. The roof collapsed, trapping ironworker Carl Malinowski under tons of twisted concrete and building debris.

“We were confronted with a gentleman who was fighting for his life, pinned uner probably 175 thousand pounds of concrete,” says Walsh. “The building pile was live---it could move at any minute. So I was pretty concerned. It was a pretty precarious rescue.”

To get an idea of what that rescue was like, NBC5 Investigates visited the sprawling Illinois Fire Service Institute, on the campus at the University of Illinois. It’s the very place the Chicago rescuers learned to do what they do.

“This is as realistic as you’re going to get,” said Mike McCastland, the program manager for IFSI’s structural collapse program, standing next to a giant pile of debris, designed to simulate the collapse of a three-story parking garage. That pile, made up of slabs of concrete and twisted rebar, is embedded with furniture, cars, and all manner of hazards which real-live rescuers might face.

To get an idea of that experience, NBC5 Investigates went inside the pile with instructor Jonathan Frye of the Oak Park Fire Department. What we found was a twisted labyrinth of tight spaces, jagged steel, slabs of concrete and almost total darkness. It was exactly what Chicago firefighters encountered as they worked their way toward Malinowski last August, eventually finding him pinned beneath a massive concrete beam.

“It was part of the rigid beam that held up the roof above him,” Walsh said. “This is what was trapping his legs.”

The Chicago rescuers used airbags to lift the beam off Malinowski, managing to free him even as doctors on an open line were preparing to give instructions on how to amputate the worker’s legs. But Walsh said even the process of lifting that beam was a precarious mission.

“Each time we lifted it two inches, it moved other parts of the building that were not stable,” he said.

Back in the IFSI collapse area, we encountered wrecked cars in tight spaces, with just enough space for a reporter to squeeze by sideways and crawl under chunks of concrete into the interior of the building. Real-life students are sent into the pile, with only the knowledge that there are 30 victims, represented by dummies, somewhere inside.

It’s their job to find them, and bring them out.

“It’s getting to them that takes time,” McCastland told NBC5. “Because it could be anything in the way, and you’re not positive the route that you’re going to take as you’re going.”

For his part, Malinowski had to endure weeks in the hospital for treatment of a variety of ailments, including over a dozen fractures, a recovery which is still a work in progress. During an interview last month at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, where he was undergoing rehabilitation, he marveled at the rescue.

“There were a lot of people looking to take care of me and help me out,” he said. “I know a lot of people risked their lives to save me---an ironworker!”

IFSI is one of the premier facilities of its kind, training an estimated 62,000 emergency responders last year, from 46 states and seven countries. Some 500 Chicago firefighters and paramedics have gone through the program’s collapse training, to guarantee that a full squad is on duty around the clock, every day of the year.

In Malinowski’s case, it was training which almost certainly spelled the difference between life and death. For Chief Walsh and his team---a good day.

“That day went excellent,” he said.

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