Firefighters rescue worker trapped in palm tree

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SAN DIEGO - Firefighters rescued a tree trimmer who became trapped 50 feet in the air under collapsed palm fronds  in Rancho Bernardo  Thursday morning.

Emergency crews were sent to the backyard of a home on the Country Club-Rancho Bernardo golf course at about 8:45 a.m. after the man became trapped while trimming dead fronds from the palm. He was pulled to safety more than an hour later at 9:55 a.m.

Firefighters used a ladder truck to reach the man. Helicopter video showed the man's head protruding from the fronds. He was conscious and talking to firefighters who were cutting away fronds to free him.

The rescue ended when firefighters cut the man's harness  to pull him to safety as he hung suspended about 50 feet in the air with his legs wrapped around the palm and his upper body on a fire engine ladder.

"This was an extreme technical rescue," SDFRD Battalion Chief Glenn Holder said. "These things don't always have good outcomes."

The tree-trimmer was "alive, breathing and stable" after the rescue, Holder said. He was placed on a stretcher once he reached the ground and was being taken to a hospital for treatment.

The delay in his rescue had to do with the type of trucks the fire department could use, Holder said. The most direct route to reach the tree was from the golf course, but fire engines are too heavy to drive on the soft grass.

Fire officials instead called for a lifeguard truck to respond -- lifeguard vehicles are designed to drive on soft surfaces like sand -- but while that vehicle was en route, a fire engine was able to get close enough for its fully-extended ladder to barely reach the top of the tree.

The worker was stuck in the skirt of fronds near the top of the tree, requiring firefighters to cut away at the skirt to reach the tree-trimmer, Holder said. But that operation was extremely dangerous.

"At any moment that skirt can cut loose, killing the person and injuring or killing the firefighter," Holder said. But a firefighter was able to cut away the skirt safely and cut the harness of the tree-trimmer to pull him to safety.

"I'm very proud of my firefighters today," Holder said.

There have been several similar cases of tree trimmers becoming trapped while cutting away dead palm fronds in San Diego. When the fronds collapse on a trimmer, they can exert 1,000 lbs. of pressure or more. In several cases, tree trimmers suffocated under the pressure before rescuers could free them.