By DON McINTOSH
It wasn’t in his job description. But when tower crane operator Cameron Rousseau got to work at 5:30 a.m. July 5, he saw a man on the edge of the jib, the crane’s horizontal arm — 230 feet out and 150 feet up.
Rousseau is a member of Operating Engineers Local 701. Since November he had been operating the crane for Mayfield’s Hoisting on an expansion of Grand Ronde Hospital in in La Grande, Oregon. He’d locked the cab when he last left. The man had to have climbed the tower and clambered over the cab to make his way out to the edge.
“Sometimes people climb these things for YouTube videos or just to get a thrill,” Rousseau told the Labor Press. “But once we were able to get some binoculars on him, we saw that he had a rope around his neck. It was pretty clear what he was going to do.”
Someone called 911. To avoid a crowd gathering or having to witness a suicide, Rousseau helped turn away other construction workers as they arrived to start the day.
Rousseau says police and firefighters got there quickly, figured out who the man was, and were able to reach him on his cellphone. A standoff began, and continued for hours, with the construction site shut down. The crisis team even managed to get the man’s therapist on the line, who also tried to talk him down.
While that went on, Rousseau worked with police and firefighters on a scenario for every contingency. Where the man was, he would be too high up for the fire department ladder to reach if he hung himself. But Rousseau worked out that the ladder would be tall enough if fire fighters set it up on a hill on the opposite side — Rousseau would have to swing the jib over to that spot, and they’d put him in a harness and cut the rope.
Then the man dropped his phone.
At the request of the crisis team, Rousseau climbed the tower, got in the cab, and sent another phone out to him in a trolley basket. The team reestablished communication, and the man stayed on the phone directly across from Rousseau for what he thinks was another hour. Finally, the crisis team radioed to Rousseau saying the man had agreed to get in the basket and be swung over to the ladder for rescue.
“I was feeling relieved they were gonna get this guy down. And a minute or two after they told me that, he went ahead and jumped.”
Rousseau felt the impact. There’d been about 10 feet of slack on the rope, and it shook the whole crane.
“As soon as he dropped, my training just kicked in, and I started swinging as fast as I could, and kept it smooth, just like a load. It’s what I do all day.”
Witnessing it, Rousseau assumed the man had died on impact, but he quickly swung the crane 180 degrees, to directly over the rescue ladder. Remarkably, rescuers were able to cut the rope and get him down within 45 seconds, and then onto a gurney and into the hospital within three minutes.
“It was really good planning. Everybody knew exactly what to do.”
Rousseau debriefed with the crisis team, then went home. The job restarted the following day, but not Rousseau. He knew he need to process what happened. He called Local 701 business manager Jim Anderson and took the rest of the week off.
“They all think I’m some sort of hero,” Rousseau said. He doesn’t feel that way. He just thinks he was in the right place at the right time and did the right thing.
And remarkably, he later learned, the man survived and was expected to make a full recovery. Without question, Rousseau’s actions made the difference.
“Are you kidding? You’re a hero,” Anderson says he told him. Rousseau didn’t sign up for that, Anderson told the Labor Press, but his quick thinking, calmness under pressure — and above all his incredibly skillful operation of the crane — saved the life of a fellow human being.
His actions earned him a July 7 letter of commendation from the La Grande Police Department.
“Without hesitation, you made yourself available to the command team,” wrote La Grande Police Department Lieutenant Jason Hays. “In the end, you were the main person who helped save this person’s life…. I cannot express enough how thankful we are to you and your devotion to duty on this day.”
“I just hope he turns around from from all this,” Rousseau said, “and appreciates that he’s been given a second chance.”