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Three plucked from burning smokestack; fourth man believed dead

Monday, March 6, 2006

BALTIMORE -- Maryland state troopers Alex Kelly and Larry Levasseur never had to pull off a rescue like this before.

Three men were trapped Saturday night 1,000 feet up on a smokestack in northern West Virginia, where an explosion damaged the lift that had carried them to the top. Fire was burning on all but about 10 feet of a platform that looked like a fiery cork in the top of the building.

The troopers made a dramatic helicopter rescue of the men at the coal-fired power plant about 70 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Two of the men were released from a hospital and the third was in stable condition Sunday, but a colleague was missing and presumed dead.

"It was hellish conditions, if you will, on top of the chimney," said Kelly, who is a flight paramedic along with Levasseur for the Maryland State Police. Their three-man rescue crew was called because it had the nearest helicopter with the needed capabilities.

The workers, who had been installing a fiberglass lining inside the concrete stack south of Moundsville, W.Va., when the fire broke out, stayed calm as pilot Dave Cooper went into a hover to enable the hoist to be lowered to retrieve them one at a time.

A pilot's nightmare

"The whole scene, it was basically a helicopter pilot's nightmare, because everything was basically wires or tower," Cooper said Sunday.

The first two men were able to get in easily, because their co-worker helped steady the basket, Kelly said.

But the last man had difficulty getting inside without such help. The basket slipped off the edge of the platform as he got inside, falling 10 feet and out of sight momentarily. It was a "heart stopper," Kelly said, but the man didn't fall.

It took roughly 15 minutes to pluck the men to safety, Kelly said. Covered in ashes and suffering from mild smoke inhalation, the men shook hands with their rescuers. The noise of the aircraft kept talking to a minimum, but Kelly said the looks on their faces said it all.

"The thought had to cross their minds that this was it," Kelly said.

Several workers were in the stack at American Electric Power's Kammer-Mitchell plant, and all but four were able to get out the bottom safely, utility spokeswoman Carmen Prati-Miller said. The workers are employed by Pullman Power LLC of Kansas City, Mo.

The fire was extinguished by Sunday afternoon, but helicopter crews still were inspecting the smokestack before officials could search for the missing worker.

"We don't know his location and we don't want to get anybody else hurt," Prati-Miller said.

The cause of the fire had not been determined Sunday. The stack liner was destroyed, and large amounts of debris were lying in the stack's base, the utility said.

Marshall County Sheriff John Gruzinskas said the rescue amazed him.

"I just couldn't imagine a rescue in daylight under the best of conditions," he said. "Here the stack is on fire, it's dark, and you've got three guys hanging onto it."

Jay McDonald, 59, of Kanab, Utah, was in good condition at a Pittsburgh hospital; while David Earley, 29, of New Matamoras, Ohio; and Timothy Wells, 36, of New Martinsville, W.Va., were treated and released, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The name of the missing worker was withheld until his body was found. Police have spoken to his wife, who is seven months pregnant, Gruzinskas said.

Calls to Wells were not immediately returned Sunday. Messages were left at listings for Earley, McDonald and Pullman Power.

Wells' wife, Melody Wells, called her husband her miracle and his rescuers heroes. She was at a basketball game with the couple's three children when the fire started.

"It was just excruciating, waiting for someone to call and let us know that he was OK," she said. "He wanted off there as soon as possible, and he was praying and thinking about me and the kids."


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