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MIT team was first on scene at helicopter crash near Sloan

Three members of a Physical Plant emergency team which happened to be training nearby made a valiant but futile rescue attempt last week when a State Police helicopter crashed onto the roof of the Harvard Sailing Center on Memorial Drive across from the Sloan School of Management.

Four persons, two state troopers and two AT&T systems engineers, died in the February 22 crash.

The MIT Physical Plant personnel had been participating in a training session in the basement of Building E53 and were on a coffee break in the Sloan School lobby when they saw the helicopter smash onto the roof of the wooden boathouse, which was unoccupied. The Physical Plant team was formed early last year to meet an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirement, and there is some confusion about its actual name. It is referred to as both the Confined Space Rescue Team and the Confined Space Entry Team.

According to The Tech, two students also participated in the rescue attempt. Paul S. Sidhu and John J. DeSarbo, both graduate students at Sloan, ran to the building with the team members. The Tech said Mr. DeSarbo also went onto the roof.

Mr. Sidhu told The Tech a third Sloan student, Eric B. Swergold, ran across the street with two fire extinguishers and passed them up to the people on the roof.

Some of the Physical Plant team members saw the helicopter falling before it hit the roof.

"Jack Mannion called it to my attention," said metal shop supervisor Paul C. Rudack. "It seemed to me to be coming down on its side, at an angle."

The helicopter had taken off moments before from the state helipad on Nashua Street in Boston and was flying over the Charles River heading for Norwood Airport, where the AT&T engineers were to service State Police communications equipment.

The eight members of the Physical Plant team attending the training session immediately ran across Memorial Drive to the boathouse, only to find the doors of the building locked.

According to Mr. Rudack, brute strength was used to break through a door at the sidewalk level that opens on a ramp leading to the building, where another locked door was smashed in.

They found a stepladder, took it outside and, by giving each other boosts, managed to get three members of the team onto the roof. The three were electrical services supervisor Neil D. Tomlinson, mechanical services supervisor Glenn A. Wilder and Mr. Rudack.

So mashed was the wreckage that they could see only two victims at first. But as they pulled them free, cutting their safety belts, they noticed two more victims.

They managed to pull three of the men out, but the fourth was pinned in the wreckage.

"All the time," Mr. Rudack said, "we had to be careful because of the spilled fuel."

"We tried to find some signs of life, feeling pulses, but there were none," said Mr. Rudack. "It was a tough thing to see," he told The Boston Globe.

The first emergency vehicle to arrive at the scene was the MIT ambulance with Officers Robert J. Molino and Robert G. Wilcox, both emergency medical technicians. Officer Molino went onto the roof, checked for vital signs and then warned others away because of the danger posed by the aviation fuel.

Soon after, units of the Cambridge Fire Department arrived.

The other five members of the Physical Plant team who were at the scene were construction coordinator and team leader David M. Barber, heat and vent supervisor John P. Mannion, supervisor of electrical services Howard D. Harrison, training coordinator Alexander Eccles, Jr., and plumbing shop supervisor Charles L. Katin.

The team was formed last year to meet OSHA requirements that facilities like MIT, with many tunnels and shafts, have available a group trained to respond to emergencies in confined spaces. Cambridge Fire Department personnel are not trained in these techniques so MIT decided to train some of its own employees. The 12 members of the team come from Physical Plant's electrical, mechanical, structural and utility groups.

Another MIT person involved in the early stages of the crash, according to the Associated Press, was Thomas S. Fiddaman, 29, a graduate student in management, who dashed inside a building to call 911.

Among faculty members who saw the crash or its aftermath from their offices in the Sloan Building, according to the Globe, was Sloan School Dean Glen L. Urban who was working at his computer at about 9:30, noticed the helicopter and thought nothing of it until he heard the crash.

"We sometimes hear car crashes out here on Memorial Drive," he said. "But this one sounded like one hell of a big car crash."

John R. Hauser, Kirin Professor of Marketing, told the Globe he was looking out his office window and talking on the phone when he saw the helicopter drop from the sky.

"It looked like the pilot didn't have any control," said Professor Hauser. "It was coming straight down. It wasn't maneuvering in either direction."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 1995.

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