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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
John McHugh has his neck brace signed by firefighter Calvin Christiansen, watched by Capt. Joel Christopherson. McHugh fell from a crane Thursday and dangled 80 feet in the air before he was retrieved by the fire department's Heavy Rescue Team.

John McHugh was hanging with the gang from Salt Lake City Fire Station No. 5 again Friday, but this time his feet were firmly on the ground.

A day earlier, the firefighters rescued the 46-year-old Park City man following a construction accident on the University of Utah campus that left him suspended about 80 feet in the air.

Just before 8 a.m. Thursday, McHugh slipped and fell while climbing a 110-foot crane being used to build the new geology and geophysics building near 100 South and 1450 East.

"It was cold and there was ice (on the crane)," the crane operator said Friday. "I was about 10 feet from the top when I lost my footing."

McHugh, who was wearing a safety harness, said he likely fell about 13 feet before the harness jerked him to a midair halt, injuring his spine. Momentum from the fall then swung the harness toward the crane, and he hit his head on the structure.

By 9 a.m., McHugh was in the back of an ambulance on his way to University Hospital. He was treated for his injuries and released the same day.

McHugh described the hour or so between his fall and ambulance ride as frightening — he's afraid of heights — and "amazing."

The amazing part, he said, was watching the fire department's Heavy Rescue Team in action.

Using a pulley system and a combination harness/back-support board designed for confined-space rescues, the team was able to keep McHugh immobilized while safely lowering him to an awaiting ambulance gurney.

Sporting a neck brace as a souvenir from that first meeting, McHugh stopped by the station Friday afternoon to shake hands and chat with the firefighters, thanking them for saving his life.

"It takes a special person to do what they did, especially when they don't even know me," he said. "These guys didn't even hesitate. I just wanted to thank them and tell them I'll never forget it."

McHugh, a single father of two young boys, ages 5 and 7, sustained some nerve damage in his back during the accident and may require surgery. His future as a heavy-machinery operator also is in jeopardy.

"Still," he said, "it could have been a lot worse. These guys saved my life."

Salt Lake City's Heavy Rescue Team, consisting of 24 specially trained firefighters, has been operating out of Station No. 5 since 2003. The team specializes in rope rescue (like the one Thursday), as well as confined-space and trench-collapse rescues, and heavy-machinery entanglement and extrication.

"We do low-frequency, high-risk operations," said Capt. Steve Crandall, who heads the Salt Lake City team. "They do not happen very often, but when they do occur, it's extremely high risk to the rescuer and the patient."

Heavy Rescue Team members spend much of their work days (or nights) training for those emergencies that require their specialized skills, Crandall said.

"Heavy rescue has to be done right," said Salt Lake Deputy Fire Chief Dan Andrus. "If it's not done right, the consequence is either a firefighter or a victim could die. You can't have any tolerance for error when you're taking somebody down on a rope line."

The team was well-prepared for a crane rescue, Crandall said, because it spent several hours training on the 325-foot crane that until recently was operating at the state Capitol during its renovation.

The firefighters' training was evident Thursday morning to McHugh, who spoke about his rescuers' exploits like those of superheroes.

Fittingly, those heroes were called into action again Friday while McHugh was still at the station.

"Thank you guys so much," he shouted as the fire engine pulled out of the bay, sirens blaring. "That right there is what it's all about."

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com