In the tree care industry, an important development in our safety culture is the practice of aerial rescue. We have created emergency scenarios in trees to practice based on our own experiences. The idea is that practicing these skills and scenarios will enable us to safely help a fellow tree worker when needed.
In October 2017, my crew had a job in a rural area of New York. My crew consisted of myself and two other climbers. We started our day early, arrived at the job site and were shown the day’s work, a vista pruning. We had to reduce several trees, some requiring large reductions cuts. The job was in a wooded area far from the main house, and far from where the truck was parked.
I climbed a maple, and Christian “Chris” Moreno climbed an oak. Valentin “Vale” Moreno (Christian’s cousin) was still on the ground trying to set up his climbing rope in another tree. Chris and I each had made several cuts when Vale started to yell. Chris was in danger. I asked Vale what kind of danger, because I couldn’t see Chris from where I was. He said a branch had hit Chris and was resting on top of him. He urged me to hurry.
I descended nervously while Vale kept yelling at Chris to hold on, saying that we were going to help him. Chris was 50 feet up, suspended in air with a large limb on top of him. I realized it was a life-or-death situation.
Vale was repeatedly asking, “What do we do?” At that moment, I wasn’t focused on the problem. I could not react to what was happening. I was in a state of shock.
Time to act
Chris was no longer responding. We had only a few minutes to do something. The weight of the branch, easily 400 pounds, was stuck in the middle of his lanyard, pushing him away from the tree trunk. A secondary branch was pressing on his head, allowing him to take only small breaths. Those were chilling seconds. I’ve never been so scared.
Vale saw I was not reacting, so he set his rope in the tree and climbed up. He reached out to Chris and assessed the situation, which was complicated. Chris was struggling to breathe. Vale again asked me what to do, and thank God I began to react.
I told Vale I would send him the chain saw, and that he should cut as much as he could to reduce the pressure and weight of the branch on Chris. We were racing against the clock. Chris still was not reacting and was breathing very little and slowly.
Vale was able to cut all the branches, leaving only the parent stem of the limb, which he was then able to pull out of Chris’ lanyard.
Chris came back to life when he opened his eyes and saw Vale there with him, saving him. Vale asked if he was OK. Chris replied, “Yes.” Vale then helped him to descend to the ground.
Relief too soon
The three of us were elated to be back on the ground together safely, having avoided what could have been a tragedy.
We decided to walk back to our truck so we could take a break and talk a little bit about what had happened. But back at the truck, Chris couldn’t walk anymore, and his neck and back began to hurt a lot. We called 911.
It turned out Chris had two broken bones in his neck and a dislocated hip. He would be out of work almost seven months. Chris is now back at work, still improving every day and committed more than ever to safety.
At the end of the day, we saved a life, and I call Vale, who carried out the rescue, a hero. He reacted when needed to save Chris.
But we were criticized for not following proper aerial-rescue protocol. This included:
- A tree inspection – we had not done one.
- Calling 911 – we should have done that immediately.
- Waiting for emergency services, etc. – we had not.
I am convinced that, had we not reacted when we did, Chris would not be with us today.
- He would have stopped breathing.
- He would have gone into respiratory failure.
- The rural area we were in was far from the nearest EMS.
- The cellphone signal was bad.
- The wooded area was difficult for EMS access.
How prepared are we for a true life-or-death emergency situation? Aerial-rescue practice is fundamental, but I think we need more practice and psychological help to be able to face these emergency situations. Not all of us have the same reaction in an emergency. I wonder what would have happened if Chris had had to depend on me as his only hope.
In the event of a real emergency, you’ll want to be able to respond in the safest, most effective way.
Leo Roldan, Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) and Qualified Crew Leader (QCL), is an ISA Certified Arborist with SavATree, an accredited, 37-year TCIA member company based in Bedford, New York.