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Conditions surrounding trench body recovery were difficult, but possible in part to rigorous training

Posted at 6:18 PM, Apr 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-08 19:18:39-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Described as the only technical rescue station in the city, Fire Station 3 is constantly on standby for challenging rescues and recoveries.

Although trench collapses are a rare encounter for many firefighters, Corpus Christi Fire’s Rescue coordinator Frank Solansky, said the collapse near Buccaneer Stadium that left one man dead goes to show that they can be a reality.

Station 3, however, does continue to train for these situations.

“Anytime we drop someone in that trench, it’s dangerous,” Solansky said, adding that the water department actually creates trenches for them to practice at least once a year. “When we train on fire and stuff, it may look dangerous, but we’re dealing with artificial smoke, we’re dealing with fire that can easily be put out, it’s very controlled, and so it’s not that dangerous to train on that kind of stuff — but dealing with a trench, whenever we dig a trench and we get in it — we’ve just created a real call.”

During these collapses, Solansky said they work to create “boxes” with a system of struts, posts and panels with pressure bags of various strengths to fill in the empty spaces.

“First of all, it was a very deep trench,” he said. “We’re looking at 12 feet and then we’re not looking at just sheer walls like we normally see or especially what we train on — this trench had a bunch of void spaces where we couldn’t go in and create boxes.

“We had to go in and then fill the void space with medium-pressure bags, and then high-pressure bags on the top for more void spaces. And then, it actually had an overhang too where we had to go in and actually put two posts vertical to capture that so it wouldn’t fall. So we had vertical overhangs, we had big voids, and then just heavy dirt too is another thing too — at least probably 2 cubic yards, probably 2700 pounds apiece, so you’re looking at over 5000 pounds that could’ve potentially collapsed right there.”

Michael Rodriguez, a rescue technician with Station 3, said he was one of the few who ended up digging within the trench.

“We were actually coming back from a fire and we heard the call and we were on the Harbor Bridge so we weren’t very far away,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a lot that goes in to a trench, it took us 11 hours, maybe a little bit more, to get this whole process put together. The main thing was our safety at this point, as it was a recovery, we had to slow everything down.”

Although he admits both the skill set and equipment they were working with was essential for the recovery, Rodriguez said the assistance of other stations was also important.

“Throughout this process there’s so many jobs that need to be done and there’s only so many people that are actually trained in this particular skill,” he said. “So we kind of divided up and had groups and we were able to guide people to help us out.”

Kyle Clearman, a captain for CCFD at Station 3, said trench rescues are just one of the many situations they have to be ready to respond to.

“Working out of the station, you have to be proficient at all those different jobs,” Clearman said. “If we show up on scene, I can’t call for the other rescue, I mean, we’re it. We’ve got to solve that problem. And so that goes back to the way we train and why we train so much — that is an added weight and added responsibility, and we don’t take that lightly.”

The victim from Monday’s trench collapse has since been identified as 21-year-old Jason Villalobos, of Houston. A bouquet of flowers and a balloon has been placed next to trench. A woman who placed a candle nearby it said although she didn’t know the victim, that it was a sad situation for everyone.