A tree trimmer working on a 40-foot palm in Rancho Bernardo Thursday became stuck in the tree’s thick fronds, prompting firefighters to launch a challenging rescue operation.
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) crews rushed to a neighborhood along the 17000 block of Bernardo Oaks Drive, behind The Country Club of Rancho Bernardo golf course, just before 9 a.m. to the man who was wedged in the palm tree.
SDFD Battalion Chief Glen Holder said the landscaper had improperly tied the ropes to the palm tree that he was trimming.
“Instead of throwing the top rope over the crown of the tree, [it] came up the bottom of the tree,” he explained.
When this type of thing happens, Holder said the large skirt of a palm tree usually comes loose from the trunk, due to damage from rain or rotting.
“And it weighs several hundred pounds, and it’ll come down, and it’ll topple the tree trimmer in half,” said Holder. “It’s usually a fatal accident.”
But, this time, things were different.
The difficult mission lasted about an hour. Rescue specialists with the SDFD Lifeguards division led the efforts, parking their truck near the tree and extending their ladder to the top.
A couple of firefighters, including James Azevedo, scaled the ladder and eventually freed the man from the tree.
Azevedo told NBC 7 the victim was conscious and talking with firefighters during the rescue. As the minutes passed and his discomfort grew, the man became worried and understandably agitated.
Azevedo said he was most concerned about the weight of the skirt falling on the victim, or toppling on the crew and the ladder. The firefighter put those fears aside and focused on completing the task at hand.
“We have to work through that, and work as safely as possible,” Azevedo said.
Holder said the crew worked from the top of the tree’s skirt down, carefully removing debris bit by bit.
“At any moment, it could [have] cut loose and hurt the patient,” he explained.
As pieces of the tree came off, the debris and dust posed a breathing hazard for the crew and victim. Holder said parts of the tree pressed on the victim’s thighs and lower back.
Rancho Bernardo resident Brian Kooiman said that, from the ground, the victim was not visible.
“You couldn’t even see him – he was underneath all of the fronds,” he recalled.
By 10 a.m., firefighters were able to remove the man from the tree, outfit him with a harness and hoist him onto the ladder. Slowly, the victim was able to move and walk onto the ladder, with a firefighter spotting him.
Kooiman said the man looked limp as he stood on the ladder.
The rescue, though common in the world of tree trimming, proved challenging, Holder said.
However, the battalion chief was happy to report on the positive outcome, since that’s not often the case with these types of rescues.
“It’s not always a pretty outcome,” said Holder. “But we’ve effectively saved this man’s life today. It’s a day to be very proud to be a firefighter. It’s an extreme honor to serve our citizens.”
The victim was taken to Palomar Medical Center and is expected to recover.
No one else was hurt in the incident.