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©1999 - 2005
Edward D. Reuss
All rights reserved. Including the right of reproduction in whole or part in any form

 

THE FIGHT AGAINST TIME

It was noon as she walked on East 63rd Street and Third Avenue.  Late May was a pleasant time of the year and lunchtime on the streets of Mahattan was a busy place. New Yorkers are a hardy bunch, and the pedestrians walked around the site lost in their own thoughts. Brigitte Gerney was on her way to a dental appointment and absent-mindedly noticed the construction activity. The trailer-truck with the steel construction rods stuck out in the heavy midday traffic.  The 35-ton crane stood like a monster next to the truck. The construction site was five stories deep.  The foundation for the large building had been poured and the gigantic crane sat by the side of the concrete walls prepared to lift the heavy rods into the gaping hole. There was only one problem. In order to lift the rods with the boom and cable, the crane had to be stabilized by putting out the "outriggers".  These leg-like supports are on most construction equipment that must be planted into the ground prior to operation of the machinery. As Brigitte walked by the vehicles, the crane had lifted the load of rods and began to turn the boom towards the open pit of the foundation. Brigitte was caught under the wheels of the crane as it nearly turned upside down over the walls. It all happened with a deafening roar as the machinery crashed against the concrete walls and the heavy steel rods crashed into the foundation. The crowds of pedestrians fled in terror as the roar of the falling steel echoed against the walls of the buildings.  It took a few moments for the initial shock of the accident sink in.  The workers on the scene knew that there was a real possibility that someone had been caught under the machinery. Multiple calls were made to 911. Whenever a truly serious event occurred in the street, the lights on the turret-positions at 911 would glow like a Christmas Tree.  The office workers in the buildings surrounding the area must have deluged 911 with such calls.

 The first to arrive on the scene were four 19th Precinct officers.  Patrol cops are the first responders to the scenes of police incidents.  They carry the burden of making correct decisions where lives hang in the balance. On this day, those first cops who arrived on the scene were made of the "right stuff". Police Officers Edward Flynn, Kevin Tolan, and Alfred Esposito, 19th Precinct, and Police Officer James Essig, NSU #4 grasped the situation instantly.  They realized that a woman had been trapped under the crane. The crane looked like it would topple into the foundation.  These cops were faced with a frightening decision. There was no time for delay. They knew that calls were being made to 911, but the crowded streets of Manhattan could result in a delayed response of the NYPD Emergency Service.  The cops on the scene weren't equipped for such a disaster.  They didn't carry safety belts or tackle for a rescue like this. The victim was under the crane and had been crushed down to about 12 feet below the sidewalk level.  To get to her, the cops would have to improvise while they listened hopefully for the sounds of responding Emergency Service trucks.

Words used to express deeds of valor lose their impact with much repetition.   Mere words cannot fully communicate the truth about the human spirit that stands against all odds when death and terror are faced with determination and bravery. The cops who were first on the scene took action that will shine in the memories of all who value the human spirit.

Without hesitation, the cops took their belts from their waists, and forming a human chain, lowered Officer Esposito down the twelve feet into the abyss of the foundation. The cops were in extreme danger as they held Esposito. They found that Brigitte was still alive although her legs were pinned by the crane.  Esposito spoke to Brigitte and encouraged her as he evaluated her predicament.  He could see that the wooden plywood planks that encircled the construction site had saved her. She was pinned under the wheel, but the wooden planks supported her body. They looked above her and nervously watched the crane as it teetered over the foundation walls.  They could hear the sounds of sirens now as they pulled Esposito back up. The cops placed wooden planks across the gap from the sidewalk to the foundation walls.  They knew that when the Emergency Service cops and medical personnel arrived, they would need such an access to the victim

The four patrol cops breathed a sigh of relief as the first Emergency Service vehicle arrived. Police Officer Paul Ragonese and Officer Mangiaracina of the Emergency Service jumped out of their truck and quickly conferred with patrol cops.  They knew that the large rescue truck from Emergency Service Unit was on the way.  They observed the precarious position of the crane, and ignoring the danger, both of them were lowered beneath the crane to begin first aid. They had been trained to deal with accidents that would boggle the mind, but the condition of Brigitte shocked them.  The crane was teetering so precariously above her, that any movement could result in death to her and to them.  They could see that she could not be extricated.  Her legs were under the crane and crushed against the sidewalk. Ragonese stayed with her and administered any first aid and comfort that he could.  He would remain with her in a dangerous position for over two and one half-hours of the ordeal.  Brigitte and Ragonese grew close during those hours.  Later, Ragonese was relieved by Police Officers Alexander Terrero and Ronald Herreid of Emergency Service Three.

The actions of the police officers of the 19th Precinct and the Emergency Service were truly heroic. What was now needed was a person with the knowledge and skill to rescue Brigitte from the certain death that loomed over her as she lay trapped beneath the machinery.   Police Officer George Toth and his partner Police Officer Frederick Hoehn of Emergency Service One arrived on the scene and all attention turned to the person of George Toth.

Police Officer George Toth, Emergency Service, was the "old hand" of Manhattan's Truck One. When George was a kid of 16, World War II was raging across Europe and the Pacific. George wanted to get into the action. He lied about his age and tried to enlist in the Navy.  He couldn't get into any of the armed forces, but America needed seamen in the enormous war effort. George was able to get his seaman's papers and shipped out with the Merchant Marine.  His first trip was on the transport "St. Alban's Victory" that brought troops to LeHavre, France. On his second trip across the Atlantic with the convoys, he landed troops in Naples, Italy.  Then he served on ships in the Pacific Theatre of the War. George served in the Merchant Marine until after the war and then went to work in Todd's Shipyard in Red Hook, Brooklyn where he learned to skills of a machinist rigger. He earned the classification of a Class "A" rigger.  While working in that trade, George would learn the skills required lifting and replacing large marine equipment from engine rooms of large ships. He would learn to work in very confined spaces with extremely heavy pieces of machinery.  He became very knowledgeable of the working of cranes and cables. The Almighty had provided the right man, at the right time, in the right situation on this day.

The scene of the accident was being flooded with police, fire, and medical personnel.  A temporary headquarters was set up nearby to coordinate the rescue efforts. They all knew that the crane had to be stabilized before Brigitte could be removed.
 
The equipment that George needed was on board the 17 ton Emergency Service Rescue Truck One.  Sergeant Robert Connelly and Police Officer Stephen Toth were racing to the scene from quarters in the 13th Precinct.  Stephen heard the voice of his father calling for the location of the truck.  When Emergency Truck One arrived, Sergeant Connelly crawled under the crane to see the condition of the victim.  George, Stephen and Fred Hoehn hooked the half-inch steel tow cable on the Rescue Truck onto the crane.  George commandeered two bulldozers that were on the construction site and attached more cables to the crane.

 The thin cables were no guarantee that the crane wouldn't topple into the foundation. George crawled down under the crane and examined the condition of Brigitte. George hoped that the cables could hold the crane up, but the cables couldn't prevent the machine shifting to either side. That shifting was what George feared.  Brigitte's legs were so tightly crushed between the crane and the debris under her, that the slightest shift in the weight of the crane would sever her legs.

At least now the emergency medical personnel could give some aid to Brigitte.  They were able to get to her and provide what medical assistance they could.     

"I crawled under the crane to see exactly how she was pinned.  I found that she was lying on a piece of 8X4 plywood across a six-foot space between the old foundation and the new one. The plywood was swaying in the middle putting pressure on her legs.  Using 2X4s, I shored up the swaying plywood." Said Toth.

"After further observation, I found that her legs were pinned between the frame of the crane and the sidewalk." He later said.

To the trained eye of George Toth, he could see that by removing the earth and rock beneath her legs, she could be extricated. He later thought: "I realized how lucky the woman was to be alive. The plywood fencing around the construction site held her up.  She would have been hanging upside down were it not for the plywood".

 "I took another look at her legs and saw that both legs were pinned between the knee and ankle.  The left leg was flat as a pancake and the right leg was partially severed and held together by sinews."

By removing the concrete and rocks under the plywood, he could get her out, but he needed to ensure that the crane would remain stationary. The cables would have to take up any slack to prevent movement. He went up and was met by the Manhattan South Borough Commander, Chief Colangelo. 

By now, the New York media had focused on the accident.  Television and news reporters had flooded into the area. Mayor Edward Koch was also present. The responsibility for the rescue lay on the shoulders of Chief Colangelo. The police commander was charged with the coordination of all of the agencies on the scene. The police, fire, medical personnel, and other agencies were under his direct command. The Operations Unit in One Police Plaza rendered assistance and if needed a Command and Control Center is activated.  The overall responses of emergency equipment and personnel are coordinated by Operations, but the police commander on the scene has the ultimate responsibility for decisions that can mean life or death.

The gravity of the situation weighed heavily on the two men as they conferred about the condition of Brigitte. The Chief said that a 140- ton crane was on the way from the Bronx. It would be quite a while before it could arrive on the scene. George explained his opinion and the Chief opted to wait for the large crane to arrive.

When the crane finally arrived from the Bronx, it was on a flatbed trailer. It was positioned over the toppled cane.  George conferred with the operator of the large crane and they unloaded two one-inch cables and hooked them to the large crane.

"As the operator was raising the cables, I noticed that one cable was shorter than the other. I told the crane operator that if he tried to lift the toppled crane, it would twist and the crane would shift and sever Brigitte's legs".  Said Toth.

George knew what he had to do. He convinced the Chief that his plan would work. He grabbed a crowbar and started digging under the concrete beneath Brigitte.  Officers Terrero and Herreid assisted as he removed the rocks and dirt by hand.  Then he took a sledgehammer and tried to crack a large piece of concrete.  With a portable jackhammer, he cracked the concrete slab and removed it.  At that point, Brigitte moaned in pain and her leg began to bleed.  The pressure had apparently been relieved. She was still held by the plywood. George pulled out the 2X4s under the wood and there was enough slack to remove her. Terrero and Herreid slid her out and she was free at last.
Brigitte was placed in a Stokes basket and taken to Bellevue Hospital where she underwent a four- hour operation to save her legs.

On Medal Day, June 5, l986, Police Officer George Toth was awarded the Medal for Valor for his actions in the rescue of Brigitte Gerney.  His knowledge and expertise in rigging and working with heavy equipment had enabled him to guide the officers and rescue workers in this superhuman effort to save the life of a fellow New Yorker.  The other cops were also decorated that Medal Day. Brigitte Gerney still needed crutches to walk, but she was in the audience as the medals were awarded to the cops who rescued her..

Emergency Service Officers like George Toth are not easily replaced.  He is retired now and he did me the honor of sharing his thoughts about the rescue of Brigitte Gerney.  He has many other memories that I hope he will share with us. The Emergency Service of the New York City Police Department will be the subject of many of the true stories that are written about in this magazine.  The cops who work Emergency service are a special breed. Their acts of bravery and skill will be recounted on the pages of NY COP ONLINE MAGAZINE.

EDITOR'S NOTE:
Police Officer Paul Ragonese, NYPD (retired) was one of the officers who stayed by the side of Brigitte Gerney comforting her and risking his life under extremely dangerous conditions.  He gives his personal account of his actions in his book: "The Soul of a Cop", published in 1991 by St. Martin's Press.

©Copyright  l999 Edward D. Reuss

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