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Firefighters rescue construction workers after scaffolding collapses

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Firefighters rescued two window-washers after their scaffolding collapsed 75 feet in the air Wednesday in Bethesda. (Photos: NewsChopper7)

BETHESDA, Md. (WJLA/AP) — Two masonries were rescued from a building on the National Institutes of Health campus after the scaffolding platform they were standing on partially collapsed.

Around 11 a.m. Wednesday, one of two metal arms drawing cables to the platform running alongside Building #10, reportedly snapped-off the roof. The platform consequently dropped from a horizontal to vertical position, leaving the men dangling from two ropes, some 80 feet in the air.

"It was so quick, and there was so much dust when it happened," eyewitness Pat Parsons recalled. "We couldn't even tell who was up there until the dust settled, and we took a second look and actually saw people swaying."

Parsons and his brother Phil had just finished servicing biomedical equipment inside Building #10. The duo was walking to their work vehicle when they heard a"pop" and then a loud "boom."

"We saw the scaffolding falling, and as it was falling, debris was falling towards us in the parking lot. So we had to jump out of the way," Parsons said recalling bricks, buckets and a cutting saw answering gravity's call.

Within a matter of minutes, a crowd of NIH employees, patients and visitors had gathered below, watching the men in yellow reflective vests sway, and wait.

"Everyone was yelling, 'call 911,'" Parsons added. "They were grabbing their rope, and trying to tether themselves tighter, but they never said a word."

The National Institutes of Health Fire Department arrived within a matter of minutes. Chief Jonathan Mattingly ordered his department's ladder truck into position. A truck operator then extended an aerial bucket to the eighth floor where firefighters swiftly pulled both construction workers to safety. Onlookers cheered and clapped for emergency crews following the 22 minute long rescue.

"A lot of people cut corners these days, but these workers were wearing their backup harnesses, and it likely saved their lives," Chief Mattingly remarked.

Chief Mattingly says the men, who are employed by a sub-contractor, were re-caulking bricks along Building #10's facade when the cable broke free. Among a long list of fixes, the construction project will reinforce expansion joints in the 14 story structure, damaged during the Great Washington Earthquake of 2011.

Although the high-angle rescue proved challenging in-and-of-itself, firefighters asserted, had the metal platform been just five feet higher, the department's ladder truck wouldn't have done the trick.

"We generally can't go much higher than eight stories," Chief Mattingly said. Plan B would have required firefighters cascade from the rooftop on rope lines; a significantly more strategic and time-consuming effort.

Paramedics transported both men to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. Although one of the men suffered a gash to his forehead, both were released within a few hours.

Around 3:30 p.m., an industrial-size crane lowered the tangled web of wires, cables and scaffolding to the ground. A line of exposed siding, the only sign of the adrenaline-filled accident.

"It's definitely been one of the crazier days I've been through. Sure something to tell my wife about," Parsons concluded.

NIH's Division of Occupational Health and Safety has launched an investigation into the accident.

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