In the early hours of Wednesday, 4 July 2012, a forest fire raged on the boundary of the residential neighbourhood of Winston Park just outside Durban. A fire fighter from Gillitts Fire Station, tripped over a fallen tree in the thick brush smoke and fell down a slope. What he didn’t realise in the dark and windy conditions was that, just metres away, was a cliff. The fire fighter tumbled down the slope and plummeted off the 40-metre cliff face, disappearing into the inferno at its base.
Rescuetech received the first call from Platoon Commander Fitz-Gerald for assistance at 05h00. Mark Easton, Operations Manager of Rescuetech, put the unit on standby and proceeded to determine the exact location, which other services were mobile and, most importantly, the extent of the injuries the fire fighter had suffered."In a six-hour battle against raging fires, fire fighters and rescue technicians combated risk with training to save one of their own, who had fallen off a 40m-cliff face and lay injured, with smoke and fire encroaching."
He was told that the entire area was ablaze, with thick, hazardous smoke from a gum tree forest fire filling the area. Reports suggested that the fire fighter was lying 40 metres below a cliff with a broken leg and possible spinal injuries.
Easton began despatching his crew and other services, while fielding multiple calls regarding the incident. As the crews mobilised to the scene, more fire engines were sent to help control the advancing fire.
At approximately 05h20, one crewmember was left at the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) and the rest had made their way to the cliff to gain access to the injured fire fighter. The crew, guided by a fire fighter, had to make their way through the fire and heavy smoke, then climb through an electric fence.
Once they had established that the scene was safe to set up rope systems and located where the fire fighter had landed, the rope technicians set up two ropes and abseiled with Advanced Life Support Paramedic Paul Knoesen down to him.
In the interim, the SAPS had also joined the scene along with other emergency officials and services. An incident command centre was set up by the fire department and plans were made by SAPS to get a helicopter to the scene to evacuate the fire fighter. Manual evacuation was ruled out, as the terrain was too steep to carry him out safely.
The emergency services had planned for a military helicopter to land at a nearby field at first light, to be briefed and to hoist the injured fire fighter to safety.
While all of this was happening, more Rescuetech volunteers arrived and set up a communication point at the top of the cliff to relay information to the JOC, as well as get the required equipment down to the scene.
In the meantime, Knoesen - assisted by the crew - stabilised the patient and continued to assess and treat his injuries. The GPS co-ordinates were also relayed to the JOC for the incoming helicopter.
The injured fire fighter was packaged into a Stokes basket after a drip and pain relief were administered.
Finding a suitable hoisting spot, the crew attached the tag line in preparation for the hoist. Together with the fire fighters, the crew at the top of the cliff face set up a hauling system as a backup, should the hoist attempt fail or be deemed too dangerous by the Air Force, given the conditions and hazards in the area.
The rescue technicians agree that this was one of the most dangerous and hazardous rescue operations they have ever conducted. It was dark, there was a fire surrounding and closing in on them. Then there was the fact that the only escape route was down the same cliff the fire fighter had tumbled down.
Finally, the crews could see the military helicopter on final approach towards the hoist zone. A smoke grenade was thrown to indicate wind direction and the location of the hoist zone. The injured fire fighter was hoisted out, with Knoesen as the rescue attendant.
The downdraft from the helicopter had caused the small fires behind the crew on top of the cliff to become raging fires. By this time, four more fire crews were on scene to keep the fires back from the cliff where the crews were working. At one point, the emergency escape plan for all crews on scene was to abseil down the cliff if the fires got entirely out of control.
Despite the dangers, rescuers worked for more than six hours to save their colleague. He had fortunately managed to crawl to the safety of a large rock, despite his radio being burnt, his helmet completely melted, his injuries and the dangers surrounding him.
Luke Wijnberg, Mark Basson, Nivashen Naguran, Jon Sargood
Pinetown, Hamersdale and Gillitts Fire Stations
Station Commander Tobias Gouws, Leading Fire Fighter Siyabonga Mngadi, Leading Fire Fighter Michak Shange, Senior Fire Fighter Christopher Shange, Fire Fighter Nicholas Mthimkulu, Station Commander Gillian Graham, Leading Fire Fighter Mhlonipheni Shabane, Senior Fire Fighter Leonard Chili, Fire Fighter Mlungisi Gumede
Major Tarryn Ryan, Major Darryl Sloan
Residents of Winston Park