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How a Kingston worker was rescued from an inferno at what locals call the 'tinderbox'

A search and rescue helicopter rescues a crane operator during a fire in downtown Kingston, Ont., on , Dec.17, 2013.

Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

The call was unlike any other the military rescue team has ever received: A man was stranded on a crane after a massive fire engulfed an apartment construction site dubbed the "tinderbox" in Kingston.

En route from their base at CFB Trenton, the five-man team had less than half an hour to come up with a plan to save the crane operator, identified by his employer on Wednesday as Adam Jastrzebski, 68. The rescuers worried that smoke would reduce visibility. And given fears the metal structure would collapsed, they decided that search-and-rescue technician Sergeant Cory Cisyk would try to remain hooked to the helicopter cable.

"We weren't sure what we were getting into. We don't deal with cranes – ever. We don't know even the components of a crane or how it works or where this guy was going to be," Sgt. Cisyk, 35, said in an interview.

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When the Griffon helicopter arrived at the site on Tuesday afternoon, the team was relieved to spot Mr. Jastrzebski curled up at the end of the charred crane's long horizontal arm. Sgt. Cisyk lowered himself down and attached a "horse collar" under the man's armpits but had trouble getting him to sit up to tighten the strap. Mr. Jastrzebski, who was stranded for about an hour in frigid temperatures, was clutching a small bag and became more responsive after Sgt. Cisyk grabbed it and slung it over his arm.

"The only one thing I understood the whole time was he said, 'My bag,' and I saw, okay, he wants to take the bag," said Sgt. Cisyk, a member of 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron.

As anxious onlookers watched from below, flight engineer Corporal Iain Cleaton saw his colleague struggling and got the pilots to raise the aircraft gently to pull Mr. Jastrzebski into a standing position. Problem solved, the pair were lifted to the helicopter.

The rescuers whisked the man, who had burns on his hands, legs, back and buttocks, to hospital, where he insisted on helping himself out of the aircraft to a stretcher.

"He's in severe pain right now in the hospital and they're giving him morphine," said Aram Malek of Canadian Professional Crane Inc., who had been to visit Mr. Jastrzebski. "One side of his body was completely frozen, the other side of his body was completely heated, burning. Thank God he didn't faint."

The damaged crane was still standing late on Wednesday, but Kingston Fire Chief Rhéaume Chaput said his "biggest concern" is that heavy winds could cause it to crash down. Officials have evacuated a "collapse zone" to protect residents while they develop a plan to dismantle it.

Questions have been raised about the use of wood in the apartment complex, which still smouldered a day later. Some local residents call it "the tinderbox." While it was being built according to code, city leaders nonetheless expressed concerns.

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"Every time I drove by this in the last couple months and I saw all the wood there, I started to think, 'Wow, you know, if that ever caught on fire, it would be quite the scene.' And unfortunately, that played out and became reality," Mayor Mark Gerretsen told reporters.

Chief Chaput said he might push for changes to Ontario's building code regarding wood structures.

The owner of the building, Jay Patry, did not return phone calls. But in a statement issued by the Canadian Wood Council, he said: "I believe in the environmental and economic benefits that wood has to offer. While this construction fire is a setback, we are committed to using wood [looking] forward to the completed building on Princess Street in Kingston."

The cause of the blaze, which forced more than 150 people from their homes, has not been determined.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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