Greenbank cliff gondola cable breaks, woman saved

Oak Harbor Firefighter Rich Cuevas helps Greenbank resident Sheila Chidsey to safety from the cliff in front of her high-bank home on North Bluff Road.

A Greenbank couple suffered a horrendous ordeal Sunday when a gondola they were riding on broke part way up a 75-foot cliff.

The incident happened around 2:30 p.m. at Bob and Sheila Chidsey’s North Bluff Road home. The couple was returning from a beach walk and were in the gondola that connects their high-bank home to the shoreline when the unthinkable happened.

About halfway up the cliff and without warning, one of the two cables the car rides on snapped.

“It was instantaneous,” said Bob, recalling the loud bang of the cable breaking.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” Sheila said.

Fortunately, the gondola’s emergency braking system appears to have kicked in and the platform was able to settle against the bluff in such a way that the Chidseys didn’t tumble to the beach below.

While neither were seriously injured, the couple was stuck more than 35 feet above the ground with no way to call for help. With few options, Bob decided to scramble down the cliff himself.

“I kinda rappelled down the cables,” Bob said.

He made it to the beach successfully and was able to call 911 at about 3 p.m. But while help was on the way, Sheila’s ordeal was far from over as she would spend another two hours trapped on the bluff.

The first emergency responders arrived within minutes but cliff rescues are irregular and complicated events, said Ed Hartin, fire chief for Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue. It took time to determine the best way to save Sheila, get all the needed resources on scene, and then perform the actual rescue.

“This is a low frequency, high-risk type of event so we take our time,” Hartin said. “Right is better than fast.”

Enlisting the help of firefighters with special “rope rescue” training from Oak Harbor Fire Department and Navy Region Northwest Fire and Emergency Services, the multi-jurisdictional team worked to set up a complicated web of ropes and pulleys to hoist, rather than lower, Sheila to safety.

It was determined that pulling her up was safer due to the uncertain condition of the broken gondola.

While the team worked above, Navy Region firefighter Ian Paola rappelled  down to Sheila and secured the frightened woman in a safety harness. Despite suffering from a natural fear of heights and a bleeding leg, Sheila kept her cool.

“She did really well; she toughed it out,” Paola said.

He was later joined by Oak Harbor firefighter Rich Cuevas and Whidbey General Hospital paramedic Chris Tumblin. The trio worked to affix Sheila to a stretcher and, in dramatic fashion, she was then hauled to the top of the cliff by a team of pulling firemen.

Sean Merrill, battalion chief for Navy Region, worked as the leader of the rope technical team. Once Sheila and his crew were all back and on top of the cliff, he said was satisfied with how the rescue proceeded.

“It went great,” Merrill said. “We got the patient up safely, we got our people up safely and that’s all that matters.”

The Chidseys were also very satisfied with the rescue, offering many compliments to the participating fire departments. Sheila was especially grateful to Paola, Cuevas and Tumblin, calling them “fantastic.”

That’s not to say that there weren’t a few heart-stopping moments, however. There were points that were downright horrifying, she said.

“I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” Sheila said. “I really thought I was going to die.”

According to Bob, the gondola was purchased in 2007 and has received regular annual maintenance ever since. He said he called the manufacturer and was told that they had never had that type of malfunction before.

Despite the experience, he said he would likely have the machine repaired, though he’ll probably be taking the next ride alone.

“You don’t think you’re getting me back in that thing do you?” Sheila said.