Middleboro Fire Chief Honored for Saving Boy Who Fell Off Swiss Mountain
WORCESTER — Middleboro Fire Chief Lance Benjamino was honored Tuesday, along with dozens of firefighters from 22 departments across Massachusetts, at a ceremony to honor firefighters for acts of bravery, meritorious conduct and public service.
The ceremony was attended by Governor Charlie Baker and State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey.
Benjamino was given an Individual Award for Meritorious Conduct, but not for something he did while on duty. The chief was honored for saving the life of a young boy who had fallen down the side of a mountain in Switzerland.
"I was extremely surprised, and I actually didn't want the award," Benjamino told WBSM News. "My award, to me, was that the child was okay, and he's doing very well. He's doing extremely well now."
Benjamino's son was going on a school trip to Europe this past April that would start out in Switzerland and include a visit to Italy. Since Benjamino had always wanted to visit Italy and there were some openings on the trip, he and his wife tagged along with their son's class.
On the very first day of the trip, the more than 100 students visited Switzerland and climbed Mount Pilatus in Lucerne. The students took a tram to the top of the mountain, where they could then traverse a staircase up to the summit.
"It was quite a ways up," he said. "We were up there sightseeing, when someone said somebody had fallen."
Initially, Chief Benjamino didn't think anything of it.
"We thought they hurt their leg or ankle or something, so we didn't pay much attention until the next group of kids were screaming at us that somebody had fallen off the side of the mountain," Benjamino said. "Naturally, I went over to see what had happened, and the witnesses said he'd fallen off the side of the mountain, so I started to look for him."
The student had fallen about 250 feet down the side of the extremely steep mountain.
"It was all shale, and parts of it were still covered with snow," Benjamino said. "He lost his footing and started to slide down the mountain, and once he started to tumble, he couldn't stop tumbling."
Benjamino said it was extremely foggy with very low visibility, and that he couldn't see or hear the student from the top of the mountain.
"I started trying to climb down the last known place they saw him, which is extremely steep," he said. "So I was going down on my butt and I started to slide. I slid a pretty good distance on my back and my tail, probably about 100 feet down, and had to literally crawl down the rest of the mountain. Luckily, I saw him laying there on a ledge. Thankfully, he was concious and alert, but banged up pretty bad."
Once he had located the boy, the next problem was the language barrier in trying to mount a rescue effort. The tour guide was able to act as a translator, and Benjamino told him he needed ropes and a stokes basket.
"They didn't know what that was, so they sent me a longboard, a spinal immobilization board," he said. "And then once they threw the rope down, it didn't reach us. It was about 125 feet away from us."
So Benjamino strapped the student to the board, and instructed the tour guide to slide the board with him up the side of the mountain. Once they reached the rope, Benjamino tied a triangle knot around the board and the student and told the others to slowly hoise as he and the tour guide carried him the rest of the way to the top of the mountain.
"It took us a little over an hour, hour and a half," Benjamino said. "We got him to the top of the mountain, but then Mountain Rescue couldn't fly to the top, so we had to carry him back down the mountain. At least we were able to use the tram to get back about halfway down, where the medevac was waiting for him."
The injured student spent the next six or seven days in a Swiss trauma center with a broken arm, a broken orbital bone, and multiple cuts and abrasions on his face and body. The day after the accident, Chief Benjamino spent the day with the boy at the hospital, before he had to continue on with the rest of the trip. The child was flown directly home from Switzerland.
"I think any firefighter that was there would have done the same thing. It's just what we do," Benjamino said. "Unfortunately, I didn't have the equipment we were used to utilizing. In an everyday event, we would have used repelling equipment, harnasses, hoisting equipment. I didn't have any of that, but it still didn't stop me from at least attempting to retrieve the student."