TR Footnotes — FN.0910
Change Language:
Bridge Too Far
Bill Jackson

While time can play tricks on one’s memory, I still recall every detail of long-ago recovery jobs that were at the least memorable and others that were just plain stupid! But there is yet a third category that I will focus on here: recoveries that were both memorable and stupid!

These jobs occurred at least 30 to 40 years ago, but each offers a moral for today’s towers. For old-timers reading this, think back on what you knew that long ago and what sort of equipment you were using at that time. You then will see what each of these jobs might teach the reader.

Keep in mind that it takes almost as much courage to admit to mistakes, as I do here, as it does to swallow, or forgive, most of each invoice for such unique but unfortunate situations.

I was working with a Holmes 750 when the call came to recover a car that had plunged off a bridge, with fatal results. The police would not let us start work until after dark when the heaviest traffic had gone by, so we hung around for about two hours waiting for permission to act.

I moved the wrecker onto the bridge and split the booms so that one would hang way out over the bridge sidewalk and railing. I tied a chain to the winch hook to assist in lowering the rope down to the wreck.

After climbing down the bank to hook the winch to the rear of the car, I signaled my winch man to start lifting. All was going well so I climbed back up — only to find that the boom was not high enough to lift the car over the railing!

The truck was leaning well over and resting on the side leg, so driving it forward was not an option. Hooking the wreck to the railing was not advisable either because the district engineer was watching every move I made.

This is the point at which I would have liked to become invisible. You know how slow the winch works on a 750, right? So dropping it back to go for another try at a hookup really looked bad for us all!

What would you have done next?

My solution was to stand on the railing with the other winch hook in my hand and tie the cable to the bottom of the wreck, followed by a direct pull from the masthead. It lifted the wreck’s lowest end to just barely scrape over the railing.

I was so relieved that I forgot what a savage bit of gear this could be. As soon as the wreck came over the railing, the load came off the leg and the truck tilted the other way. The wreck swung around into the back of my truck, only to be stopped from overturning the truck by the outboard boom hitting the mast support.

What a complete mess…and all because I would not be beaten and got too sure of my own ability!

This job is probably known among some of the elders of the industry but it can teach the young ones a thing or two.

The call sounded deceptively simple. Can you bring your air cushions — newly invented by us — to upright a 300,000-pound locomotive laying on its side on a slope?

Well, I had hardly put the phone down than my trucks were being fired up and ready to go! (We were so macho in those days!) But then a little voice told me to slow down and think about this seemingly simple request that involved driving our trucks more than 200 miles. And why had they called us anyway? There were plenty of other towers around much closer.

Even though we hadn’t yet fully learned to use our air cushions properly, I knew immediately that we couldn’t work on a slope with air cushions. This job called for a plan that would enable us to bring the locomotive up to flat ground first, which (they had forgotten to mention) involved a winching job of over 150 feet!

I called the team together to prepare for departure two days later. In the meantime, we pulled together loads of big cable, winch blocks, huge chains, and so on, and finally set off.

On arrival, my heart sank when I saw what we had been asked to recover. The huge engine was 100 feet down a mountainside with the driver’s end hanging over a big drop-off. I had quoted $25,000 for the job plus expenses, but the sensible thing to do would have been to go home!

After struggling for three very wet days, we had moved the huge locomotive all of six inches! It still had not occurred to me why the engine had stopped on the cliff edge, but I finally climbed inside the cab, only to find a tree stump sticking three feet up into the engine. This was the clue I should have found on arrival and not days later!

It was a long and tedious week before the locomotive came up. I think The job wound up costing me double the price I had quoted my employers. The lesson here is to never get too pumped up too quickly over any big job because it’s easy to become a chump!

It’s not every towing company that gets salvage calls but they can be exciting to the novice, which is what I was at the time of this job. The call came from the Coast Guard Service asking us to remove a sunken boat from the middle of England’s Thames River. I was told the boat was wooden, with a dry weight around 20,000 pounds, and sunk!

The Thames is London’s main river and runs through Oxford to the sea, about 150 miles. It has a tide that runs from around eight to 11 mph, which means the river’s depth varies from dry to 20 feet deep twice a day. The powerful pull of the outgoing tide on the Thames is something to see!

I went down to see the boat and prepare a plan for the recovery, which looked fairly simple on the face of it. I met the owner who came from overseas and had been traveling around the world in his boat until he hit a barge in the Thames. He asked if we could salvage the boat with our big sea salvage cushions. “No problem,” I said. Such confidence but such ignorance!

I decided that we would roll up one Of our cushions — they were really heavy — and put it on the outside of the boat’s saloon roof, where we would strap it into place with two 12-inchwide polyester straps.

All this would be done at low tide to make the job simpler. The tide would float the boat using the air bag and we would not bother with the hole in the hull until we got it into a dockyard.

Using our Holmes 750, we split the booms and removed the cable from the ends, tying one to a stanchion that held up a restaurant sign (with the owner’s consent) and the other to the boat. As an afterthought, I attached the winch hook to a come-along, with a light rope acting as a quick release. Then we sat down, had a bite to eat, and waited for the tide.

As soon as the tide started to come in, all hell broke loose! I had figured that the boat would stay put on the bottom because of the big hole in the hull, but with the pull of the tide, it started to take off! The strain on the winch cable grew until the cables were actually singing from the power of the tide.

Suddenly the stanchion broke off and the 750 began to be dragged into the river. The side of the bank was all small stones so it was useless as an anchor for the rear wheels.

The choice was obvious: wait and see what happened or let the boat go. I pulled the release and freed the boat to float away with the tide. It was later found 10 miles away with my cushion still on the roof and some bright boy claimed salvage rights.

On top of that, I had to pay to recover my cushion from him, paid the restaurateur for his signpost, and when I called the owner, he said he didn’t have insurance. Although I had saved my beloved Holmes from drowning, I went home poorer and wiser.

Moral: Don’t accept any verbal promises regarding insurance details.Read the policy and/or talk to an insurance rep you know.

This was an early air-cushion recovery that called for us to lift and recover a big U.S. bomber that had landed in a field during WWII and been there ever since. On arrival, I found that it weighed around 40,000 pounds, and was well sunk into a soft-surfaced field, around which some too-clever expert had ordered ditches dug to drain water off the site.

The plane was effectively on an island and I did not bring a pump. Well, who would have guessed you would need a pump to recover a bomber?

I had brought two heavy trucks and two of our new three-compartment railroad air bags, each capable of lifting 26,000 pounds vertically. The arithmetic sounds good but in this case, that was about all! I had designed these cushions with a sloped top to lift railroad tankers because rail equipment is so top-heavy, you need this bit of angle for an initial assist on the lift.

Our bomber recovery plan included building a ramp over the ditch that was strong enough to haul the bomber over it to safety. That work took two more days.

For the job itself, I decided to go for broke and placed a bag under the wing stub on each side near the fuselage, both bags sloping inwards. We only had to lift them about nine inches to get the mats under the fuselage, so we started lifting.

Unfortunately, I had completely overlooked the possibility and power of suction! The lift bags continued to strain right up to nine pounds psi when suddenly, with a noise I cannot really describe, the plane came out of the mud like a cork from a bottle! The bags shot out from under the wing, one of them bowling over an important- looking man in a smart suit who I believe may have represented the owners of the plane. He was not amused by his fall, particularly since cows had been grazing near the plane.

After chasing after the bags, we did another lift, and fortunately, this time all went well. My point here is that nowadays everyone knows about the power of suction but back then, not so much.

Details of the foregoing stories and many more are included in my several books on heavy-duty recovery techniques. For ordering or more information on them, including my recent book on rotator operation and recovery, please give me a call at 561-622-5994 or email me at

Art credits: Bridge: /ziggymaj; Locomotive: iStockphoto. Com/MenagerieCreative; Boat: iStock; Bomber: