STAUNTON — As Fayette County mourns the loss of two longtime community firefighters, more details have been released concerning the tragic accident that caused their deaths on Saturday.
The Fayette County Sheriff’s Office 9-1-1 Center received a call on Saturday just after 11 a.m. of an overturned mechanical lift with injuries. First responders arriving on scene identified the victims in the overturned lift as Concord-Green Fire Chief Ralph Stegbauer and fire captain Jeffery Skaggs. Both sustained fatal injuries in the accident and were pronounced dead at the scene by Fayette County Coroner Dr. Lenora Fitton.
The initial investigation revealed that Stegbauer and Skaggs were utilizing the lift to make repairs to the radio tower outside the Concord-Green firehouse when the lift tipped over, ejecting both of them from the tower basket from many feet in the air.
On Monday, Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth provided more details to the Record-Herald about the incident.
“We know that the lift was actually sitting on a trailer. We know they went all the way up to the top of the radio tower and removed an old antennae from the very top of the tower,” said Stanforth. “They were going to go back up and install a windsock that would be used as a visual from the air for helicopters if they ever had to use the parking lot as a landing zone for medical purposes.”
A windsock can be used as a basic indicator of wind speed and direction and are commonly used at airports to show the direction and strength of the wind to pilots.
“So, we believe they were coming down with the old antennae and the plan was to retrieve the windsock and go back up to the top of the tower to install it,” said Stanforth. “We believe when they were on the way down the arm of the bucket, the lift, was in a descending phase when it lost its balance and stability and toppled off the trailer.”
Stanforth said investigators believe that if the lift had been on the ground instead of the trailer, it would not have overturned.
“The lift was designed with an extremely heavy base, thousands of pounds, to counterbalance the weight of the lift,” Stanforth said. “If it had been on the ground, the movement of the lift arm would have been counterbalanced. But I think because it was sitting on the trailer, the lift had no mechanism to counter the trailer movement and the trailer couldn’t counter the lift movement. Even a minor shift would cause that lift to slide off the trailer, and we believe that’s basically what happened.”
It’s very common for fire services to work on their own radio towers. Compared to other towers in the county, the tower next to the Concord-Green fire station is relatively small. The tower is between 50 and 60 feet tall, according to Stanforth.
“Jeff (Skaggs) was such a handyman. He knew how to fix literally anything and everything,” said Stanforth. “I always joked that if NASA were to call Jeff and say we need the Hubble Telescope fixed, Jeff would’ve said, ‘Hold on, I got a part in my garage.’ He was just so talented in that regard.”
The investigation into the incident was able to approximately recreate where the arm was when it lost stability. The Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office was called in to assist with the investigation.
“We know it wasn’t fully extended or it would’ve been fully extended on the ground,” Stanforth said. “If I had to guess, they fell around 30 to 40 feet. We believe both died on impact. A fall from that height, it’s catastrophic.”
Stanforth added he’s hopeful the investigation is completed this week.
The Concord-Green Fire Department was taken out of service until further notice. Calls for service in Concord and Green townships will be covered by the surrounding fire agencies in the county.
“It’s a small department and they’ve all been brought up through Ralph’s (Stegbauer) tutelage. Eddie Ivers was the longtime fire chief before Ralph took over. When Ed died, the fire service was impacted by his loss because he was such an integral part of the service at the Concord-Green Fire Department. He had been there for many years as a chief and everybody loved Ed. When Ralph was made chief, he had big shoes to fill. Not only did he fill Ed’s shoes but he brought his own shoes to the fire chief position,” said Stanforth.
The Washington C.H. Fire Department and other surrounding fire services will step up until Concord-Green is back in operation, however that long that takes.
“That’s the nature of fire service … no man stands alone,” said Stanforth. “The residents of Staunton, Concord and Green townships, and really the entire county, are going to be grieving because everyone knew Ralph and Jeff. If they had any issues that required fire service, those are the two guys you knew you were going to see. They were always on the scene and normally the first responders on every call.”