Jacksonville firefighter overcomes fear of heights to assist in high-rise rescue

JFRD engineers helped rescue 2 waterproofers dangling from BB&T building

By Ashley Spicer - Reporter, anchor, Chris Parenteau - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Two members of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department on Tuesday detailed how they assisted in a stunning high-rise rescue.

JFRD engineers Patrick Schneider and Justin Smith both played important roles in rescuing two men dangling on the side of the BB&T Bank Building in downtown Jacksonville early Monday evening

Schneider told News4Jax that it was the first time he ever responded to a call like the one that came in about 5 p.m. Monday.

"I just grabbed as much gear as I could -- rope, rigging, bags -- (and) headed to the roof," Schneider said. "They looked like two ants hanging there. All you saw was their boots dangling. It's something I've never seen before. A million emotions are running over you. And that's what we do -- we fall back on our training to suppress that and just do your job."

News4Jax obtained audio of a 911 call made as the two workers dangled high off the ground from the side of the BB&T building.

Dispatcher: "Can you ask if he's injured?"
911 Caller: "No. He's not injured. He's about to fall. He needs some help."
Dispatcher: "They're on their way. What's about to fall?"
Caller: "I'm sorry I have to..."
Dispatcher: "Sir, stay on the line with me. What's going on? Hello?"

LISTEN: Uncut audio of 911 caller reporting scaffolding collapse

Schneider's job was to secure the scaffolding, which was hanging precariously from one end, to the building so it wouldn't fall to the ground. 

"I don't like heights," he said. "I did what I needed to do but I was like dragging knuckles going down the side of the building."

Every call, Schneider said, requires an incredible amount of trust that he and his teammates all have each other's safety in mind. 

"They were manually holding those lines," he said. "Those guys were hanging over a building, held by those buddies they work with."

IMAGES: JFRD rescues workers dangling from BB&T Bank Building

Smith was one of those holding onto the line. 

"It was an emergency situation," Smith said. "The one gentleman was actually hanging from his harness."

Smith had responded to similar calls before, and Monday marked his fourth call.

Though it's always shocking for the city to see these rescues, he said, JFRD members train for them often.

"I'm really fortunate to be a part of this fire station and this department. We're highly trained. We have the best equipment that is out there and we're very proficient with it," Smith said. "I think that may be comforting to folks in the city to know that, when they call, they're getting the best." 

No one was injured and the men on the side of the building were safely brought back to solid ground.

WATCH: Sky 4 helicopter captures aerial view of high-rise rescue

2 waterproofers pulled to safety

In addition to the heroes who took part in the rescue, News4Jax also learned more about the men who were dangling from the side of the of the building and the work they were doing before that.

JFRD crews rappelled down the building to rescue two men after the scaffolding they were working on broke free. News4Jax was told a third man was able to get off the scaffolding platform where it was closest to the roof.

The day after the rescue, News4Jax learned that the men on the scaffolding were waterproofers, not window cleaners. They were working for a Western Specialty Contractors, a company based in St. Louis. The company also has a regional office in Orlando and does work throughout the state.

With so many high-rises downtown and after what happened Monday, other local window companies spoke about the dangers of the job. 

"Mistakes happen. Things happen," said Lindsey Bergdoll, who works for A1 Orange Exterior Building Services in Jacksonville. "But safety has to be put No.1."

Bergdoll said A1 Orange Exterior Building Services does work similar to what was being done by the workers before they became stranded Monday on the side of the BB&T building. She said they hold safety meetings regularly to make sure everyone's training is up to date. 

Anytime work is being done a few floors off the ground or scaffolding is being used, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said at least two people have to be around. 

Bergdoll said everything must be looked at before you can go down the side of a building.

"Evaluating it, checking the anchors, making sure they are certified and inspected, checking the equipment, checking the staging, checking your ropes, checking your harness, making sure they are in perfect, usable condition," she said.

On Tuesday, the scaffolding platform that was left dangling Monday had been lowered, but the ropes were still there. No workers were back up along the building.

WATCH: Waterproofers uninjured after 'equipment malfunction'

In a statement sent to News4Jax on Tuesday, Western Specialty Contractors confirmed the two men were both company employees and they were uninjured.

The full statement from Eric Olson, safety director at Western Specialty Contractors, reads: 

On Monday, Feb. 19, Western Specialty Contractors experienced an equipment malfunction on a jobsite in Jacksonville, FL which resulted in two employees needing rescue by the local fire department. 

We are pleased to confirm that no injuries occurred to either worker as a result of the incident and we are currently working with the equipment supplier to determine the exact cause of the malfunction. At this time, Western has determined that the employees involved were using all of the correct fall protection and safety systems required on the jobsite to protect against injury. 

Western takes great pride in its safety program, which is ranked one of the highest in the country. All of our employees are fully trained to handle these types of unforeseen situations. 

Western Specialty Contractors has made employee safety a top priority for over 100 years and will continue to do so into the future. 

News4Jax found one OSHA violation from 2016 for Western Specialty Contractors in Fort Lauderdale, but none in the Jacksonville area.

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