When firefighters arrived at the Longwood house on June 20, they found a Florida man pinned by a large tree limb, 15 feet up the remnants of a majestic Southern live oak, bellowing.
“He was literally screaming the entire time that we were there, which makes an intense scene even more intense,” Seminole County firefighter Michael Gagliano told Coffee or Die Magazine.
It was just after 10 a.m., and Gagliano and all the other twelves — Tower 12, Rescue 12, and Engine 12 — stared up at an arborist whose foot was being crushed into the bark by a big bough. They learned that his tree trimming crew had tried to pry loose the 25-year-old worker, but the heavy weight of the limbs draped around him snapped their ropes.
Rescuers initially thought they’d perform a high-angle rescue, dangling Gagliano on a rope from an elevated height to pluck the arborist to safety. That’s how specially trained personnel extract victims stranded on skyscrapers, wind turbines, and tunnels.
But this oak got a vote.
Lt. Kevin Yates, a pro at rope rescues, began diagramming how the accident had occurred to plot the safest way to get the arborist out from under the limbs.
He and the other rescuers saw that someone had lopped off a very large branch rising vertically at the top of the tree. When it fell, it toppled onto a plump scaffold limb that grew perpendicular to the trunk. When crew members on the ground started sawing apart the downed branches, that large limb shifted and speared into the trapped arborist’s boot.
Then other boughs crashed together into a dangerous jigsaw puzzle of green.
Yates used the formula to measure the volume of a cylinder to gin up what he called his “rough estimates of what our largest parts of the wood would weigh,” concentrating on the 24-inch round section pinning the arborist to the trunk. Tilting the scales at about 60 pounds per cubic foot of wood, the arborist had 1,500 pounds on his foot. And if the firefighters pried it loose, where would it fly next? Would any other limbs come crashing down?
“That’s just the biggest part of the tree,” Yates said. “It’s a significant amount of weight to try and anticipate where it’s going to go.”
And the trimmers were getting tired.
They’d been straining against the big branch to keep some of the crushing weight off their co-worker’s foot. They wanted to start sawing into the limb pressing against the boot and prune away the other branches, but firefighters asked them to hold off for a few minutes.
After huddling, the rescuers blueprinted how they were going to save the trapped arborist. They rotated in Seminole County firefighters to spot the exhausted cutters pushing against the heavy bough. They also propped two ladders on either side of the oak for Gagliano and his firefighter-paramedic partner, Ryan Lewallen, to scale.
When they reached the trapped arborist, Lewallen pulled out a knife to cut the man’s bootlaces, thinking that he might be able to free his foot while firefighters on the ground heaved at the limb to remove the heavy weight.
But the rescuer never needed to slash them. The tree trimmer loosened his own laces and his foot wiggled out.
Rescuers urged him to stay in the tree until they could lower him to safety, but as “soon as he was free, he just kind of jumped off and just released himself,” Gagliano said.
After the arborist hit the ground, firefighters tried to hand him off to waiting medics, but the Florida man told them, “I’m finished. I’m having a cigarette before I even get in the fucking ambulance.”
First responders transported him to AdventHealth Altamonte Springs for treatment, but Gagliano said the steel-toed boots appeared to shield him from major injuries. The arborist’s foot appeared to suffer only a little swelling.
As for the boot, Gagliano told Coffee or Die the rescuers “figured we’d just leave it. Our main concern was getting the guy extricated.”