THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A dire fall, a dramatic save

Rescuers extract hobbled T worker trapped in pillar

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / March 31, 2011

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In the early morning darkness, firefighters could hear Edward J. Rowe Jr. screaming from deep inside one of the wide concrete pillars that hold up the elevated railway.

Rowe is a second-generation electrical worker with the MBTA, 27 years on the job. He had been crossing the Red Line tracks at Charles/MGH Station yesterday when he stepped on a wooden plank where a manhole cover should have been. In an instant, he crashed through, smacking bottom 30 feet down and fracturing both legs.

In shock and in pain, but still conscious, Rowe fished for his radio and called the T’s Operations Control Center. It was 4:18 a.m.

More than 2 1/2 hours later, firefighters hoisted him out of the shaft. It was a dramatic rescue, at once fast-paced and painstaking, involving some of Boston’s nimblest firefighters.

Rowe was transported to nearby Massachusetts General Hospital, where a spokeswoman said yesterday evening that his condition had improved from serious to fair.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which shut down service to the heart of its busiest subway line for three hours, disrupting the morning commute for 100,000, could not explain why the shaft, in an area off limits to the public, was covered only with wood.

General manager Richard A. Davey ordered a review of shaft covers and asked managers to hold an immediate “safety stand down,’’ reminding employees to report safety concerns directly or via an anonymous hotline.

“We’ve identified at least a handful of wood covers, and those will be changed out as soon as possible,’’ said Davey, who blamed use of the planks on poor decision-making and not a lack of money at the financially strapped T.

“I’m not going to blame this on aging infrastructure,’’ he said. “It doesn’t cost very much money to install a steel plate over a cavity or a hole like this.’’

Rowe, a 46-year-old from Haverhill, was working at the station overnight to assist state Department of Transportation contractors who were taking core samples from the elevated station, an early step in the $300 million reconstruction of the adjacent Longfellow Bridge.

Rowe was crossing between the inbound and outbound tracks when he fell into the shaft, which was about 2 feet by 2 feet at the opening and about 4 by 4 at the bottom.

T officials could not say why the cavity exists or how old the column is. But Bradley Clarke, a transit historian and president of the Boston Street Railway Association, said it was built in 1911 to support the original 678-foot-long elevated section that connects the tunnel under Beacon Hill with the Longfellow Bridge. The narrow cavity probably was intended to provide inspectors access, Clarke said.

The Boston Fire Department’s Engine 4 and Ladder 24, stationed a few hundred yards up Cambridge Street, arrived moments after the emergency call. But they needed help; the narrowness of the shaft required one of the department’s two technical rescue companies, which specialize in high-elevation, below-ground, and confined rescues.

Soon afterward, Rescue 1 arrived. Captain Richard Connelly and Firefighter Ballin Wright raced up the station stairs and called down to Rowe.

“He told us his name was Eddie,’’ Connelly said afterward, in an interview at the firehouse. “We asked him where he hurt. He said he couldn’t feel his feet, his legs hurt, and his left arm [as well].’’

The first decision was which rescuer would descend into the shaft. Wright was a natural choice, a 24-year firefighter with a compact build and three years on the rescue team. He donned a full-body harness, and 10 other Rescue 1 firefighters lowered him carefully down the hole, using ropes and pulleys. Wright quickly realized he needed more help, given Rowe’s size, his condition, and the contorted position of his legs. Gary Dardia, only slightly bigger than Wright, began the descent.

With barely room for the three of them on the shaft floor, the firefighters secured Rowe to a seated rescue harness, and those at the top hoisted him up. But the seated Rowe was unable to fit through the final section of the shaft.

“Every time we tried to move him, he was screaming in pain from the two fractures,’’ said Connelly, a 42-year veteran of the department. “We started off doing by the book. By the book didn’t exactly work, so we had to improvise.’’

Turning to Plan B, the rescuers lowered Rowe back down the shaft so they could try a Class III harness, just like the ones the firefighters wore, which would allow his legs to hang straight down. Working only with flashlights, they put Rowe in the new harness, supported his legs with splints, and wrapped him in a flexible stretcher.

“He was in a lot of pain, and clearly he was anxious,’’ Dardia said. “He wanted out of that hole, but he was cooperative. He helped us the best he could under the condition he was in.’’

This time, Rowe made it out, emerging at about 7 a.m. The two firefighters followed, one after the other. Dardia and Wright looked dazed, having just finished a 24-hour shift that had taken them to an East Boston house fire shortly before the MBTA call.

“Another day,’’ Wright said. “Busy day.’’

“I’m just glad it all worked out,’’ Dardia said, “and glad the guy is out of the hole, and going to be all right.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.