The Toledo-based team, established in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has at its disposal specially trained firefighters from 23 departments from Sandusky to Lima and more than $600,000 in equipment required for just such an emergency.
"We tested our limits as to what we can accomplish on collapses," said Jerusalem Township Fire Chief Harold Stanton, who took charge of the scene inside the Fremont plant. "This was the worst that we've seen yet as far as difficulty."
Until the July 7 roof collapse - in which one worker was killed and another trapped under debris for four hours then freed - the rescue team had mostly dealt with hypothetical training situations.
Thomas Jaksetic, a battalion chief with the Toledo Fire Department and rescue team leader, said the team responded to the tornado in Lake Township last month and went to the scene of a 2007 natural gas explosion in the basement of the Valentine Theatre that damaged the adjacent Renaissance Senior Apartments, but neither incident required rescues from collapsed buildings like the one in Fremont.
"This was seven years in the making, this response was. To buy the equipment, put it on the rig, train the people, and exercise it," Chief Jaksetic said.
Since 2004, Region 1 has received $106,500 for training the team in structural collapse; rope, confined space, and trench rescue; heavy equipment and vehicle extrication, and hazardous materials.
A fire-engine-red tractor-trailer rig and the equipment that fills it were purchased with more than $600,000 in federal funds funneled to Lucas County through the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. The rig is loaded with power tools, saws, equipment to cut and break concrete, hand tools, air-monitoring equipment, ropes, tarps, inflatable lift bags, and lots and lots of lumber that's used to shore up debris and building parts.
At the Fremont Co., the tangle of concrete roof panels, cables, building materials, and manufacturing equipment was so concentrated around the two victims that extra lumber had to be brought in from a local lumber yard.
At 1:30 p.m. on July 7, a portion of the heavy concrete roof over the main cook room at the Fremont Co., a food processing plant on North Front Street, collapsed onto employees of Fremont's B&W Welding who were working on the columns that help support the roof.
Nate Kern, 35, of Gibsonburg died instantly. Todd Michael, 44, of Fremont, vice president of B&W, was pinned under three of the roof panels, Chief Stanton said.
The roof, he said, consisted of 4-foot-wide, 8-inch-thick concrete panels topped with two inches of tar and stone. Each was 30 to 40 feet long, he said.
Once electricity and gas were shut off to the plant, firefighters began the meticulous process of raising and shoring up debris with lift bags and wood cribbing, which enabled them to get to Mr. Michael, who was conscious throughout the four-hour rescue.
The Cleveland-based Region 2 Collapse Search and Rescue Team took over after Mr. Michael's rescue at 5:30 p.m. to recover Mr. Kern's body, which was removed about 10:30 p.m.
David Michael, president and chief executive officer of B&W Welding, said he's grateful his son, Todd, is alive, but that as a parent, it was difficult to watch and wait for hours while the rescue team worked.
"They meant well, and I think they probably did a good job," Mr. Michael said. "I just wish they would've gotten him out much sooner."
It seemed to him that a crane his company had on site could have moved the concrete slabs and freed his son much faster.
Fire officials disagree.
Fremont Fire Chief Dan DeVanna said it was clear to him almost immediately that using a crane was not a good idea.
"That building was so unstable, and the last thing you want to do is bring it down on top of the victim and the people trying to save him," he said.
Chief Jaksetic said a crane
"has too much force and is not predictable." It's easy to second-guess how the rescue was handled, but he said he would put his money on the rescue team.
"Let's say we didn't have this capability, and we would've had first responders - firefighters or law enforcement - go in and try to rescue this guy without the training and without the equipment, there could have been a secondary collapse and it could've killed them and the guy who was originally trapped," he said.
Mr. Michael said his son was transferred Thursday from Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center to a rehabilitation center in Green Springs, a 15-minute trip southeast of Fremont. He did not break any bones but suffered damage to his leg and arm that bore the weight of the rubble. Mr. Michael said Todd also is on dialysis because his kidneys are not functioning properly.
"He's awful, awful weak," Mr. Michael said. "But Todd's not one to be sitting on his [behind]. He's going to come back. It's just going to take a little time."
He said it was difficult for his son to miss Mr. Kern's funeral.
"My employees are like family to me," David Michael said. "Nate was with me 17 years, ever since he got out of school. It was like losing a family member. You couldn't find a nicer man, and he was probably my best fabricator."
Inspectors with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration continue to probe the cause of the fatal collapse.
The Fremont Co., which normally would be at the start of sauerkraut season, plans to rebuild the damaged portion of the plant, said Chris Smith, a company spokesman.
"Nobody has been allowed to go into the facility as of yet so the production workers have not been back yet, and there is no date set for when they can return," he said. "We are not bringing in cabbage because of the potential damage with the buildings so there's no dates set for when we can start bringing it in either."
Chief Jaksetic said while there has not been a big demand for the rescue team's services, it's ready when needed.
"As I rolled this out to the fire departments in the region, I told them it's very unlikely we'll have an incident," he recalled. "But my selling pitch was this will make us better firefighters in general."
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