Daring pipe rescue

By admin
04 August 2014

When a man is pulled into an industrial water pipe by suction force and dragged 100 m inside it, a brave firefighter volunteers to rescue him

On October 4, 2012, a team from Newcastle Protection Services was despatched to rescue a man who’d been pulled into a leaking water pipe he was working on. The team needed to act fast as the man’s life was hanging by a thread.

When the team of three firefighters arrived they were met by a shocked group of people, Station Officer Paul Minnaar said. They were informed that the water had been turned off to enable restoration work on the pipe, and that when the pipe snapped the vacuum inside was so strong it had pulled the man far into the pipe.

Paul assessed the situation and explained to firefighters Zanele Sibisi and Caleb Ngema that they would need to send a slightly-built person into the pipe to find the victim, as the diameter of the pipe was a mere 610 mm. When Zanele heard the man’s faint moan in the darkness of the pipe, she felt moved and volunteered to go in.

Zanele, wearing her normal uniform, removed her shoes and put on her firefighting gloves to protect her hands inside the fibreglass pipe. Paul ensured the water would remain switched off, then tied a rope around Zanele’s waist and gave her a torch. The crew helped her into the pipe and she started crawling in the direction of the sounds.

Once inside the pipe, Zanele realised the man was much further into it than she’d thought. She kept calling his name and he responded, telling her he was trying to meet her halfway, but that he was injured, exhausted and that his knees hurt.

The light of the torch grew weak and Zanele panicked because it felt as if the pipe was getting smaller and darker. But despite her fear, she switched the torch off – she knew she had to preserve the battery.

When Zanele took a moment to look behind her, she couldn’t believe how far she had crawled. Paul and Caleb were feeding the rescue rope and every time she stopped moving, they’d talk to her and encourage her. The faint echo of their voices kept her going.

When she eventually found the victim Zanele noticed that the force with which he’d been pulled in had been so strong it had ripped the clothes from his body. She used the light of the torch to assess his condition as well as she could, and found he was badly injured – there were multiple abrasions on his upper body and face and he was bleeding profusely from a cut on his chin. He was, however, conscious and speaking.

Zanele removed the shirt of her uniform and placed it underneath the man to protect his skin as much as possible. Then she wound the rescue rope around his body and gave the crew the signal that he was ready to be pulled out.

Unable to turn around inside the narrow pipe, Zanele had no option but to crawl out backwards while the crew on the surface slowly pulled the rescue rope to bring them out. She did what she could to minimise further injury as they painstakingly made their way out, her own knees and elbows burning from the fibreglass and her muscles aching from the strain.

Two harrowing hours after Zanele first entered the pipe, the man was lifted out, stabilised and transported to hospital. She had crawled the length of a rugby field.

Paul, a veteran with 20 years in the service, said Zanele was extremely brave. The Newcastle area doesn’t have a specialised rescue unit to perform confined-space rescues, so it’s up to the firefighters to handle whatever comes their way – as Zanele and the crew did that day.

Sadly, the man succumbed to his injuries the following day.

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