CAMDEN, N.J. — On main! On belay! The commands came from a trainer standing on the retired Battleship New Jersey, more than 100 feet above its deck.
On those verbal signals, the trainee then hooked a pulley to a main rope hanging over the starboard side of the towering radar platform and a belay hook on the safety harness to the pulley and then began a controlled slide down the rope. Others followed on the same descent, rappelling in a seated position in mid-air.
The trainees were 17 firefighters and EMTs from across the country who were on a rescue mission at the Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum on the city waterfront, but it was strictly for advanced training.
For three days they climbed all over the ship, from tight spaces in its bowels below the engine and boiler rooms to the open-air radar platform more than 11 decks up. Drones were launched to capture photos and videos of the action last Thursday.
"It was awesome and I want to go again," Alexis "Lexi" Keil told the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill. The 20-year volunteer firefighter for Fairmount Engine Co. No. 2 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, was the first to descend more than 70 feet to a lower deck and the only woman who took the course.
"I'm not really afraid of heights anyway. I trusted the men above me and was very confident in the system. There was a breeze but the wind was no factor for us today. I just had to decide when I could take my legs off the supports under the radar platform, hang totally free and try not to hit anything going down."
Keil is enrolled in a community college and said she hopes to get a degree in fire science because she has wanted to be a firefighter for as long as she can remember.
John Wellington of Tabernacle called the experience "very rewarding" because there were many obstacles to overcome on the ship, a floating city with many rooms, corridors and more than 15 decks. "It's a most interesting prop for our training and the scenarios were endless, like searching for a victim in darkness at the bottom of the ship," said Wellington, emergency services chief for Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Trainers said teamwork, technique and safety are paramount in the training, conducted by private companies NSR Solutions LLC of Blackwood and Med-Tex Services of Philadelphia.
During the three days, the emergency personnel used stretchers and mannequins and explored the nooks and crannies of the ship.
"Today's rappelling, which was partially controlled by a device attached to the trainee, would simulate a rescue from a tower or a lighthouse, for example, to get a victim down to the ground," said Anthony Aquilino, NSR Solutions president and CEO.
The training groups are small, Aquilino said, to lower the student-trainer ratio and to give students more one-on-one time.
"Navy and commercial ships do not allow us to go aboard for this training, so we are appreciative of the cooperation of the battleship," Aquilino added.
David Del Col, 41, a veteran firefighter for the Reno, Nevada, fire department, traveled the farthest. "It was a fun location and a chance to do something different."
He was among some in the group who bunked overnight on the ship in former sailor chief's quarters. Looking upward, he said, "You just had to watch when you got up not to hit yourself in the head on the bunk above you."