Dramatic steeple rescue put new Morristown Fire Chief on hot seat

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Just one month into his term as Morristown’s acting fire chief, Jimmy Schultz found himself facing some tricky choices Thursday as two contractors awaited rescue from a stalled cherry-picker 120 feet above the United Methodist Church.

The tallest fire truck ladders on the scene, from Madison and Morris Township, extended only 105 feet.

A steeple worker is lowered to safety on Thursday after being stuck in a cherry picker about 120 feet above the Morristown United Methodist Church. Photo by Berit Ollestad.
A steeple worker is lowered to safety on Thursday after being stuck in a cherry picker about 120 feet above the Morristown United Methodist Church. Photo by Berit Ollestad.

Extending a portable ladder from the end of a truck ladder to the workers was risky.

The workers, who had been surveying the church steeple on the first day of a church restoration project, stood in a basket that was wedged against the steeple at a slight angle.

Although firefighters lashed the workers’ boom to the steeple with ropes, a ladder rescue was likely to be wobbly, said Jimmy, a veteran of 30 years as a fireman.

Another option was plucking the workers to safety via a new State Police helicopter that buzzed up from south Jersey.

“That was Plan C,” Jimmy said.

Plan B spared everyone from that nail-biting scenario.

A 275-ton crane from Bruce Koerner Cranes of Denville hoisted a metal cage alongside the basket. As news helicopters hovered overhead, firefighters helped the workers into the cage and they were lowered onto South Park Place, three hours after their ordeal began, to applause from onlookers lining the historic Morristown Green.

“I felt like I was getting a cat stuck out of a tree,” said Bruce Koerner, who was thanked by the steeple workers.

HAPPY ENDING: Veteran Firefighter Jimmy Schultz, one-month into his term as acting fire chief in Morristown, speaks after two steeple workers were lowered to safety. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
HAPPY ENDING: Veteran Firefighter Jimmy Schultz, one-month into his term as acting fire chief in Morristown, speaks after two steeple workers were lowered to safety. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The workers, from the Newman Company, were not immediately identified. They were checked out by Morristown EMS personnel and then taken into the church to be interviewed by investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Jimmy said.

“They’re good, thankfully,” the fire chief said of the workers’ condition. “They’re cold. It’s not too bad down here, but when you get up a little bit you’re getting a little more wind.”

It was a chilly afternoon with temperatures falling from the lower 50s. Including work time before they got stranded, the men probably were aloft for five hours, said church Pastor Neill Tolboom.

“They’re just glad to be back on the ground,” said Pastor Neill, who prayed for the workers during the rescue, and with them when they came down. “The truth of the matter is, everyone was so professional in this thing, I was really never worried.”

Crowd on the Morristown Green watches steeple rescue. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Crowd on the Morristown Green watches rescue of two steeple contractors on Thursday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

When the workers’ basket made contact with the steeple, it caused one of the crane’s wheels to lift off the ground. That triggered an automatic shut-down of the apparatus, said the chief. One of the steeple workers used his cell phone to call for help.

Why the basket touched the steeple in the first place is unclear.  There were no concerns about the steeple toppling, according to the chief; his worry was that the crane might fall backwards onto the New Jersey Monthly building.

“This is an extraordinary circumstance,” said Jimmy, noting it’s been about 20 years since the last high-rise rescue in town. It  involved a window washer at the Headquarters Plaza complex. A fire truck ladder was just long enough for that job, he said.

Pastor Neill Tolboom of the Morristown United Methodist Church watches rescue of two steeple contractors on Thursday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Pastor Neill Tolboom of the Morristown United Methodist Church watches rescue of two steeple contractors on Thursday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Fortunately, the steeple workers were in no imminent peril and firefighters had time to plot their strategy, Jimmy said.  Firefighters from Cedar Knolls, Whippany and Morris Plains also responded to the scene.

The timing was auspicious for the church: It was day one of a two-week, $120,000 church renovation. The commotion also coincided with the church’s annual meeting. Trustees had to make their way past a small army of emergency vehicles and hordes of New York media.

Pastor Neill, whose flair for dramatic fundraising events has included tricycling around the Green and taking outdoor winter swims, said the steeple contractors had invited him to join them in their basket on Thursday morning.

“It was a good decision to say no,” he said. “I’m a little older and I definitely would have had to use the bathroom.”

MG Correspondent Berit Ollestad contributed to this report.

READ MORE ABOUT THE STEEPLE RESCUE

Steeple workers are rescued by crane from the Morristown United Methodist Church on Thursday. Photo by Berit Ollestad
Steeple workers are rescued by crane from the Morristown United Methodist Church on Thursday. Photo by Berit Ollestad

 

 

 

 

 

 

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