Wayne Fire Department Special Response Team leader Anthony Gabriel hooks up a trapped teenager to the rappelling line on top of an elevator car Friday, April 15, 2022, in New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Wayne Fire Department.
It’s still sort of a mystery how six New Jersey teenagers fresh from the Rockin’ Jump Trampoline Park in Wayne on Friday got stuck in an exit elevator.
But Wayne Fire Department Commissioner William Rodriguez has a pretty good theory.
“They’ve got that jumping still in their system. And when they get in the elevator and they talk about their experience inside,” Rodriguez told Coffee or Die Magazine, “they may start jumping in the elevator, which whacks out the elevator.”
They whacked it out so well that the car got stuck in the 50-foot elevator shaft, and no one from the first or penthouse floors could reach them.
Rodriguez and a cop were the first ones to arrive on scene at roughly 5:10 p.m. Rodriguez tried flipping the elevator’s main power switch off, waiting 10 seconds, and then clicking it back on. That usually resets a tripped sensor, but this time it didn’t take. The department had a little experience with the problem; Rodriguez said his personnel have been dispatched there four times since Jan. 1 to get passengers out of a jammed car, but no one ever stayed trapped inside for long.
An elevator technician called by Rockin’ Jump Trampoline Park staff tried to execute an emergency override, but it also didn’t work.
The temperature inside the shaft was going to start getting hot. The park staff took down a cell phone number from one of the kids in the car and established communications with the trapped teens, just in case one of them in the shaft began to experience a medical malady, like heatstroke.
“We kept the parents abreast of what we’re doing to keep them calm. Everyone sees stuff on TV, and what comes to mind is the worst,” Rodriguez said.
An all-volunteer operation, the Wayne Fire Department dispatched three of its five companies to the scene. Companies 1 and 2 arrived with a fire engine. Company 5, home to the Special Response Team, also rushed over a rescue truck.
Michael “Mike” Leonard was the rescue officer in charge when the call reached him in the station house, so he joined Special Response Team leader Anthony Gabriel and three other personnel from Company 5 at the park.
They realized they’d be forced to run a high-angle rescue from the top of the shaft, with Leonard and Gabriel rappelling down to the elevator car.
“Pulling someone out of an elevator through the top hatch is very, very dangerous,” Leonard told Coffee or Die. “It’s not only the moving components of the elevator that make it dangerous, but there’s also void spaces that they can fall into. It’s not meant for people to be in.”
The crew erected a three-anchor self-balancing system to hold the main line they’d use to hoist rescuers down and then tug the teens from the car up the shaft. It’s a good system because if one anchor fails, two more will hold the line running down the passageway.
To make the operation even safer, a second safety line was dangled down the shaft, and it had its own anchor point. The team used a Paratech Elevator Shaft Rescue Kit to keep the passageway doors open. They also knew they could use it as a rappel point to swing down the shaft, without the ropes sawing against the sharp edge of the door floor.
Once the team had erected the brace, ropes, pulleys, and anchors, they lowered Gabriel to the top of the elevator car. He opened the top hatch of the car and pushed down a ladder. The first teen went up the rungs, and Gabriel fitted him with a harness tied to the rescue line.
And up the kid went. Gabriel estimated it was about a 25-foot journey to the open door. The team repeated the trip for the second teen, and then Leonard dropped into the car.
He estimated the temperature inside the car hovered between 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“At a certain point, any extended occupancy in an elevator car with high heat will eventually pose health and safety risks,” Leonard told Coffee or Die.
But he said the kids were in surprisingly good spirits, and the water bottles handed around didn’t hurt the mood.
“I think this was more of just a fun, like, you know, story that they get to tell,” he said. “They were definitely all very hot and sweaty, and they were looking forward to getting out of the elevator.”
Leonard put the harnesses on the remaining four New Jersey teenagers. They went up the ladder, and Gabriel hooked them up for the trip to the top of the shaft.
Emergency medical services personnel assessed the teens as they reached the door, and then they were released, one by one, to their parents waiting in a nearby parking lot.
“I think one of the really beautiful things about a volunteer fire department is, you know, we do this because we love it. We do it because, you know, when you get to be there for other people in their moment of need, that is our reward,” said Leonard. “There’s no amount of money that can really compensate for that.”
Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children.
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