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Three Men Rescued After Ambassador Bridge Scaffolding Collapses

Aired June 21, 2001 - 11:14   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now we want take you right away to live pictures we're getting in from our affiliate WDIV in the Detroit area. What you are seeing: A rescue in progress. As we understand it, these are painters hanging from the Ambassador Bridge. Scaffolding broke. They are over the Detroit River, and the effort is going on right now, trying to rescue them.

If you look toward the middle-bottom of the screen, you can see the scaffolding -- I don't know -- if the picture does go down a little bit, you'll see the scaffolding looks like it is broken.

We're going to go ahead and join our affiliate WDIV, listen in to their coverage and try to learn more about what is happening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... obviously, I'm sure he was tied in as well. But he was standing there while they concentrated all of their efforts on getting the man who had nothing under his feet, who was just hanging from his safety line. You can see the workers starting to head down that suspension cable now.

MIKE LEWIS, WDIV REPORTER: Well, everybody appears to be walking, albeit somewhat gingerly up at that height. But we would presume that both gentlemen are in good health, at least are able to stand up, and are ambulatory and can move.

And it is my understanding, Rod (ph) and Mike, that these painters work routinely on this bridge, and have to continually apply paint to those suspension cables. And the bridge being the size it is, I would imagine by the time they go all the way across the bridge and paint it, it's time to go back to the beginning and start all over again. So there's always almost continually a presence of workers on that bridge, isn't there?

LEWIS: Yes, that's right. You can see where they have painted and where they were painting. Right up, just towards the Ambassador Bridge letters, you can see where it's white. Below that it's been painted dark. A couple of these workers -- I don't know if you've seen it in the last minute or so, have been waving at us, or waving at somebody, obviously relived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're waving at mom, I would imagine.

Rod Maloney (ph) let's go back up to you, you're bringing us these pictures. Perhaps you can widen out just a little bit and give us this perspective, and we can see that those workers were almost at the very top up by the Ambassador Bridge sign?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right, Emory (ph). In fact, I'll take you out just a little bit and show -- there is the sign that is so familiar for everyone on this bridge.

And yes, Emory, there is usually some kind of construction presence on this bridge at any given time during the daytime. And you may recall that a couple of people died in that endeavor just last winter, when several people went in the water and one of the bodies ended up being picked out of the water days later.

But what we're seeing here right now is what look to be some relieved workers here, who had one of the scaffoldings break on them. One end actually did stay on. And it looks like everybody had some kind of harness on.

And, in fact, as best I can tell from what we've been able to see since we've been up, Emory, is that this gentleman right here in the jeans and the gray T-shirt is quite shaken by this ordeal. And it looks like he was one of the ones who was in trouble here, hanging off of that scaffolding. He was lying down earlier, as you may recall. And he has an escort with him walking very delicately going down the scaffolding.

You can see the workers behind him sort of taking a look at things. And I'm going to pull down this way and show that a lot of these other workers who obviously were not up here at the time have been kind of almost running down this area, this stanchion here, and making a very good clip. In fact, there's one of the workers now, almost in -- in an almost run.

As you take a look at them going down, it looks like these clearly are are people who are experienced and have been up here before, as they make their exit off of the bridge and get down to a safer area.

But it's been a situation, Emory, where we have seen in the past, where people have been in, you know, life threatening situations up here, and clearly there is a very good ending to the story here today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. They are coming down, we would also point out, on the Detroit side of that bridge. Mike Lewis, I believe was over on the -- I believe Mike was over on the west side of the bridge earlier when we spoke to him. And now Rod, Mike is working his way around to a point where these workers will be coming off the bridge, presumably, and perhaps we can get a word with them and get some information on exactly what happened up there.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are harnessed and tied for safety purposes, of course. So I would imagine that the scaffold is tied down, and they must be tied down to the tables up above, instead of to the scaffold itself, obviously, just in case something like this happens.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right; and that is correct.

Now, as -- I'm going to pull away from the guys coming down the bridge now, and I want to show you the area, the piece of equipment that actually broke. Now, this would be the end of it that actually broke off or came loose somehow from the bridge. And one end actually hung on, the other did not. And it was positioned right up here on this end of the bridge. It looks to me like the top part of that has already been painted, and that they were working on...

KAGAN: Want to give you another picture that we're getting from another one of our affiliates. We're lucky enough to have more than one affiliate in the Detroit area. These pictures coming to us from WXYZ. You really get the perspective of the rescue that is taking place there as these painters try to make their way down from the Ambassador Bridge.

They were way up at the top when the scaffolding broke, and luckily they've been rescued, and they are making their way gingerly down, I think it's safe to say.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, and they say "gingerly" because this man you see there in the center in the white -- what appears to be a white sweatshirt, is visibly shaken. He seemed -- he appeared to be shaken up...

KAGAN: Understandably.

HARRIS: Yes. So apparently he was -- obviously he was the one who was -- one of the two men who were on that scaffold that we saw moments ago. Moments ago on this particular shot, we happened to see a really good wide picture which showed the scaffolding, which is hanging now by what looks like maybe two or three cables. And it's totally upended, I should say, like one end they left...

KAGAN: Hanging there.

HARRIS: Let's pick an end -- the left side is totally hanging down toward the water.

KAGAN: Look at those pictures. As you pull out you get a real sense of how precarious it is that they're up there; luckily (sic) that they have those safety harnesses. And, as I understand it, when the scaffolding broke, that's literally what saved their lives.

Also hearing from another one of our affiliates, it's not unusual for the painters to be up there; that it's almost a constant sight. It's a large bridge, obviously, over the Detroit River, taking a beating from the water. So it does take that constant care.

HARRIS: And I've got to think, it's hundreds of feet in the air that they were at -- the point he was at, because they were perhaps maybe one span or half a span away from the actual top, where the lighted sign says "Ambassador Bridge" -- there you see that "Ambassador Bridge" light there. You can see the scaffolding, hanging down towards the water, hundreds of feet up in the air.

KAGAN: In the wide shot, you get a better idea of how high up they are. But I would imagine unless you're there in person, you can't even appreciate how high those men are on top of the bridge.

HARRIS: I don't know, I'm doing a pretty good job right here.

KAGAN: Is your stomach doing some flips?

HARRIS: I'm one of those kind of people who are affected by heights, and I have to admit the helicopter shot they showed, when you could see the water moving in the background in perfect focus and him in front of you in perfect focus, and the camera was swinging around him, that was enough to give me a little...

KAGAN: A little while.

HARRIS: Yes, so to speak.

KAGAN: Keep in mind that the cables going down there are round, so their footing is even more difficult.

HARRIS: But these are designed to be traversed by foot, so I'm imagining there's got to be some sort of traction items or some sort of a grid or something that's on top of that for them to walk up and down.

They've been making their way down. We've been watching this for at least...

KAGAN: About five or six minutes.

HARRIS: And had no idea how long they'd been hanging.

KAGAN: What's he doing now? Look, he's sitting down.

HARRIS: Let's see if we can go back to the coverage, back to WDIV.

KAGAN: Let's go back to join our affiliate, have them explain what they're doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Ambassador Bridge has been closed to traffic. Ambulances are there and emergency equipment is there, parked at the bridge at the location where these workers will come down.

They were, apparently, according to Rod and Mike, painting the top suspension cable of the bridge, and as we have pointed out, this is a job that goes on continually, I believe, throughout the year, weather depending. That cable that we see that is white apparently has been painted, and you can see on the right side of your screen it appears from the top of the tower there that part of that cable is also painted. That's where they were working.

This is where they are now coming down... HARRIS: We have switched back to our other affiliate in Detroit, WXYZ. Their picture you can see -- a much closer view of the trip down this immense cable that the two men are making right now. They stopped for some reason. You can see a there is some sort of a foot walk or some sort of grid for them to walk on top of, and it's enabling them to travel down this cable without too much trouble with slipping. Fortunately, from what we've been hearing, the winds are not bad.

KAGAN: Not too bad.

HARRIS: You can see their hair isn't even moving. The helicopter operator there is noting that the usual winds in that area that would be buffeting them are not happening today, which is a good thing.

KAGAN: To remind our viewers, if you're just joining us, this is the Ambassador Bridge, and to put it in perspective, geographically, this is a bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, Canada. People are very familiar with that, going back and forth between those communities quite a bit.

Once again, if you're just joining us, these are two painters that were painting earlier today when their scaffolding broke. Luckily, they were wearing safety harnesses, and used those to get back down to flat land, which I'm sure they will be very happy to see.

HARRIS: That's a long walk they've been on, and it really makes you wonder just how high up they were. Maybe we'll get a figure on that at some other point.

This is the lead group we've seen coming down the bridge. It's hard to tell exactly what point they are on because we haven't had a wider shot here in some time, but it appears that they're getting very close to the end of this. As our affiliate is pointing out -- there we go -- it's pulling back some.

Let's listen in and see if we can find out where they are right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... difficult, difficult work, and even these people, who are not faint of heart, by any stretch, have moments when they're just frightened beyond imagining, and rightfully so. As you can see, they are still taking their time getting down to the ground. I'm sure that once he gets there, there's probably a kiss awaiting the face...

HARRIS: We switched back to our other camera, coming from WXYZ. You can see they are still well above the street lights.

KAGAN: I was able to surf the Internet a little bit and get some information on that.

HARRIS: What did you find?

KAGAN: It's the Ambassador Bridge. It's the number one international border crossing in North America. As we pointed out, it goes from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, into Detroit. Total length is 9,200 feet. The height above the Detroit River -- that's what we want to know.

HARRIS: That's what we want to know.

KAGAN: It's 152 feet at the center.

HARRIS: That's the center of the roadway surface, but not of the top spire.

KAGAN: I think at the center of the bridge: 152 feet at the center.

HARRIS: It looks as though they are about down now. They've just hit the sidewalk -- No, they're almost down to the sidewalk, then they have another hundred feet or so to go. They've made a long, precarious walk down this cable.

We still have no idea of exactly what happened to cause that scaffolding to collapse under them while they were up there painting, but they were very close to the top span, the top of the uppermost span on this Ambassador Bridge, so they've been climbing down at least for the last 10 or 15 minutes or so.

KAGAN: It's official Web site definitely says it's 152 feet at its highest point. It's an old bridge; 1929 it was built.

We're going to go ahead and listen in to our coverage -- WDIV.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... the surface of the bridge, and this is a walkway that clearly they have all walked more than once, but even still, when your heart's pounding like that. Think about when you've lifted something probably heavier than you should have and then you put it down, and how your arms shake. My guess is that's how he is feeling throughout his entire body as he is walking down that bridge. He is walking very, very gingerly, much differently than the other workers who are there with him.

This has had an obvious affect on him. I'm thinking that he may be reassessing whether he wants ever to go back up again.

KAGAN: Now switching back over to WXYZ. You can see this picture. It looks like they're bringing in a cherry picker, so that the guys don't have to go all the way down that suspension cable, that they'll be able to reach over there and hop onto the bridge portion. I'm sure they'll be very happy to get down.

HARRIS: When you've walked on a bridge like that, it's rare that you see one where the walkway will be close to the cable anyway.

KAGAN: Right.

HARRIS: So there's got to be at least 20 feet or so separating it.


KAGAN: Again, one of those things where it's probably hard to see the perspective, and it's probably farther away from the cable to the roadway than we would imagine.

HARRIS: There we go, stepping into the cherry picker. No, they're waiting for...

KAGAN: It to come over.


It's hard to tell how many men were up there in total. It looked as though there were at least about 10.

KAGAN: Right, and at this point, we don't know how many were on the scaffolding when it broke. Some of them could have just been up there.

It looks like the guy with the gray sweatshirt is on there now.


HARRIS: No, he's not quite there. The one with the gray sweatshirt had a helmet on, in the center of your screen right now, is the one who appears to be the most shaken up. He's been limping coming down.


KAGAN: There's that possibility that they were hurt when the scaffolding broke.

HARRIS: You know, it's possible. If you look at where his safety harness is attached to him. If that scaffolding suddenly snapped under him, he'd get jerked up by his waist. That would be quite a strain on one's back, I would imagine.

But it appears as though they will be taken down safely. A good picture -- you can see the separation between the cable and the walkway there is not that high. He's going to have to climb under.


KAGAN: One at a time -- there. I bet that feels good to be on that.

HARRIS: I'll bet he's happy -- he is happy to be there.

It appears as though that cherry picker must be part of their normal equipment. As you can see, there are a couple paint cans in there.

KAGAN: We mentioned this is the Ambassador Bridge. It's the connection between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit. It's a very busy bridge, and this, of course, has closed the bridge, and there's supposedly a huge backup on either side, both as people watch and as are stuck.

HARRIS: This bridge, as you said, carries the most inter-border traffic.

KAGAN: Its official Web site says its North America's number one international border crossing.

And he is down.

HARRIS: There we go.

KAGAN: A happy man.

Let's go back and rejoin our coverage.

LEWIS: ... standing out there in traffic. Police are out there. You see they can't let any traffic up on the bridge, which is one reason we can't get anymore nearer with the chopper at this point. They've closed it off so they could get those emergency vehicle up there and facilitate this rescue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you arrived at scene, Mike, was he in the process of being pulled up, or were they still trying to figure out how to get him up to safety.

LEWIS: No, he was still hanging there, and we could see him from a long distance away downtown, a man just hanging from a safety line, dangling, moving his arms and his legs -- so we could tell that he was OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And is this Detroit rescue equipment that we're looking at, or is Windsor, Canada, represented there too?

LEWIS: I believe that is Detroit. They came up from the Detroit side. It looked like there is a Detroit police car -- at least one -- up there, and I think they were Detroit EMS trucks up there as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure. As Mike Lewis has pointed out, the traffic is going just to be a nightmare going across the bridge, in both directions, probably for the better part of the afternoon. It will take a while for that...

KAGAN: Now that we can see those workers are down safely, we're going to take you to a different live event.




4:30pm ET, 4/16

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