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Rescuers dig operator out of toppled crane

MANATEE -- A crane toppled over in sandy soil at the former Piney Point phosphate mine on Buckeye Road in north Manatee, leaving its injured operator pinned in the cockpit for more than two hours Friday morning.

The 52-year-old operator, who was reported in good condition, was cut out of the rig at 11 a.m. and taken by helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg where he was treated for lower extremity injuries including a broken leg, said Ron Koper, Manatee County EMS chief.

The rescue took more than two hours because first responders had to dig under the sand to cut away part of the cockpit that was enclosing the worker, Koper said.

Two paramedics and a chief from Manatee County EMS raced to the condemned mine, which is now owned by HRK Holdings Inc. of Palmetto after receiving a call at 8:45 a.m, Friday.

Two engines, a brush truck and six firefighters from North River Fire District along with three firefighters from the city of Bradenton’s Heavy Rescue division also responded to the accident scene.

All the rescuers ended up on a 40-foot berm at the former mine where the crane lay on its side.

“It was actually lucky it was in sand because we had to dig under and cut away the membrane holding him in,” said North River Fire Captain Scott Meabon. “The worker was conscious throughout. He was even cracking jokes.”

The operator was driving the crane on the top of the berm at the condemned mine and had just extended his boom to lower some equipment into a retention pond,” Koper said. “Apparently, the sand gave way and the rig began to slip.”

The operator released his equipment when he felt the soil move, but the crane still fell, Koper said.

Koper was not sure what the worker was doing at the mine, but Koper and others said that HRK Holdings Inc. is responsible for maintaining the watershed at the condemned mine site.

“The operator was awake and in pain,” Koper said. “His legs were entrapped in the cockpit. There was so much in the cab that it took us two hours to get him removed.”

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.