City's Rescuers Share Cliffside Peril with Victims


Mike Wereschagin | | Monday, January 12, 2009

PITTSBURGH -- Where there wasn't snow, there were sheets of ice. Around that, there were loose plates of shale. And under it all, an unstable layer of sand-like soil shifted and tumbled over itself.

It would have been an unpleasant walk for Jack Winterbottom even if the ground weren't at a 75-degree slope. As the last hours of 2008 ticked away, Winterbottom, a city paramedic with Downtown-based Rescue 2 unit, settled into his climbing harness and picked his way down the face of Mt. Washington to a man stranded in freezing weather 250 feet below McArdle Roadway.

Winterbottom and partner David Naples are two of the city's 24 Rescue paramedics, all of whom are trained in "rope rescues."

"Inherently, that's dangerous. If you have to use a rope to get to someone, they're in a predicament. So you're going to put yourself in the same predicament," said Naples, a paramedic since 1983 who has been with Rescue 2 for 14 years.

In increasing numbers, people have eschewed the easy way down Mt. Washington for the potentially lethal alternative, said Robert Farrow, division chief of the Bureau of Emergency Services. Rescuers have saved four people stuck on the hillside in fewer than two years. Before that, they'd sometimes go more than a year without such a call.

"I'm trained, and I wouldn't do it," Winterbottom said about trying to descend the hillside. "I don't think anyone here (in Rescue 2) would be crazy enough to do it."

In addition to rescuing the stranded man on New Year's Eve, the pair have completed several high-profile rescues in the four years they've worked together. In November, Winterbottom manned the ropes while Naples took his turn in the harness, rappelling down a maintenance shaft above the Liberty Tunnels to rescue two stranded PennDOT workers.

"You could hear the traffic" about 200 feet below, Winterbottom said.

Rescuing those two was a little easier than plucking a wayward pedestrian off Mt. Washington, Naples said. Neither worker was injured -- the lift they used to travel the shaft broke down -- and both were used to heights.

"If you're OK with heights, and you've been on a rope before, it's actually a fun thing to do. People do it recreationally."

Winterbottom said he used to climb for fun. Naples helps train Rescue workers on rope rescues, an exercise he sees as paid recreation.

Training follows standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, a 112-year-old nonprofit organization that develops codes and standards for things such as building safety and rescue operations. Rescuers put to work the skills they learn in places from cliffs to sewer access pipes to high-rise construction sites.

"For somebody who's trained, to hang on a rope is a comfortable thing," Naples said.

"But in the dark of night, when it's cold and the person's afraid of heights, to dangle somebody on a rope and lower them ... 80, 90 feet in midair may not be so much fun. It may cause panic," Naples said. That's dangerous for the stranded person and the rescuer to whom he's attached.

On New Year's Eve, it was dark. It was cold. And the person was afraid of heights.

Winterbottom tread carefully over the treacherous ground. A rescue worker on West Carson Street kept an eye on the stranded 31-year-old man from the South Hills whose name officials declined to release, and radioed updates to Winterbottom and Naples. Winterbottom didn't descend from directly above the person in case he knocked loose a rock.

Naples secured Winterbottom's rope and stood on the sidewalk along McArdle Roadway.

"You have two inclines going up and down there. There's a road -- sidewalks, for goodness' sake," Naples said. "There's a sidewalk on McArdle Road. You can walk from Grandview (Avenue) to Station Square without getting your shoes dirty."

Covered in trees and located in the middle of a city, the hillside might appear deceptively tame. But the passable-looking areas give way abruptly to rock faces and steep slopes covered in shards of slate and loose soil. Often, a stranded person realizes he made a mistake and tries to turn around, only to find the dirt that cushioned his descent won't support his weight as he tries to climb.

"You can get down to a point, but sooner or later, you're going to run into a cliff" varying in height from 20 to 90 feet, Naples said. "That's where people get stopped, and where we usually end up finding them: on the edge of that cliff."

As Winterbottom approached from the stranded man's left, he shouted out instructions not to move, telling the man to fight the natural impulse to reach toward his rescuer. The man was clinging to a tree, and hypothermia was setting in. Winterbottom tied the two of them to the tree, and Naples secured the rope above.

For about two hours, the two men huddled against Mt. Washington, waiting for rescuers above them to rig a system of pulleys and ropes that would hoist them to safety. The temperature sank below 20 degrees, with gusting wind. The man apologized so often that it began to annoy Winterbottom.

But the view was pretty good.

When rescuers attached them to the pulley, the man tried to pull himself up using one of the ropes, rather than be pulled to safety. Winterbottom had to push his feet so the man would "walk" up the hill as rescuers pulled from above.

"You have to do what you have to do to get him where you need to, and verbal communication wasn't doing it," Winterbottom said.

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