Caught on camera: Firefighter’s fall revealed to be serious accident, safety measures questioned

We’re learning more about what happened when a firefighter fell from a helicopter rescue basket, and that his injuries were far more serious than initially revealed.

The incident was caught on video, and first responders say it’s the latest case that shows a need for more safety measures.

The video may be hard to watch. It shows the moment the helicopter basket snagged on a utility pole line during the rescue of a hiker who suffered a medical emergency. The firefighter falls out while the chopper pilot pulls the hiker, still in the basket, away to safety.

The Sept. 2 incident with the fire helicopter came just months after a firefighter died during an ocean-rescue training. First responders are calling for more accountability when it comes to safety.

Despite HFD officials at the time telling media the firefighter’s condition was stable, the witness video, first-hand accounts, and a federal investigation reveal a much more serious accident.

Officials told us on the day this firefighter fell that he was in stable condition, but Always Investigating has learned, and now witness video shows, how he fell from the rescue net.

He dropped 25 feet according to a federal investigation, about 30 feet per HFD, and the injuries were serious according to the National Transportation Safety Board and first-hand accounts. The fall left him with broken bones, cracked ribs, internal injuries, and he felt a jolt of electricity. He is still off work recovering from surgery.

We’ve learned the NTSB is investigating, and a state labor department workplace safety review is underway.

HFD grounded the helicopter pilot, and an internal investigation is ongoing, but the head of the firefighter union says they have major concerns coming so soon after Cliff Rigsbee died from personal watercraft training injuries.

“We have a lot of issues with an administration we feel is not focused on firefighter safety,” Hawaii Fire Fighters Association president Bobby Lee said Tuesday. “You have a fire commission that also controls the fire chief. It’s been a rough road for us dealing with our issues, but in the end, we’re going to do the right thing.”

James Wataru, Honolulu Fire Commission chairman, told Always Investigating that management were all once on the front lines, and “I truly believe that safety is always at the forefront to them. They are doing what they are supposed to be doing with training, but when these things happen, they have to be investigated. Every situation is unique and a new problem, and you have to find out, is there even more they can do?”

Always Investigating analyzed the video and compared it to what firefighters say should be standard operating procedure. We see no harnesses or helmets on the hiker or the firefighter, and none available in the basket. Who was supposed to check for adequate safety gear before liftoff? Also in question, why the ground crew would signal the chopper to come in so close to the power line, and why the pilot did not override with an alternate landing zone.

We asked the chief multiple procedural questions in writing, including why the seriousness wasn’t clear in initial reports, and what’s being done to prevent a similar incident.

HFD didn’t answer our detailed list of questions yet — instead they put out a statement recapping the incident itself and said: “The HFD continually reviews its procedures for all operations and will take the appropriate actions to address any issues that come to light from this investigation.”

“All we can do is continue to work with the people that have the control,” Lee said.

We’ll continue to press the chief and HFD for answers on what went wrong and how specifically safety will be addressed to ensure follow-through from textbook and accreditation expectations all the way to front-line actions and resources.

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