Panama City Beach and South Walton first responders describe SkyWheel rescue

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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WMBB)–Typically, a ride on the SkyWheel in Pier Park only lasts a couple of minutes. But some tourists got more than they bargained for when shuffling into their gondola Thursday night. The SkyWheel ended up malfunctioning and getting stuck, with their gondola resting at the highest point. The entire ordeal lasted around 6 hours.

Multiple agencies worked together to bring them to safety but not without some challenges.

“It was a little sketchy up there with the winds blowing us around at about 17 miles per hour as we were trying to get anchored off,” said Glen Kuehner, a District Chief for the South Walton Fire District.

South Walton’s tactical rescue team was dispatched to Panama City Beach shortly after Panama City Beach Fire Rescue arrived on the scene. Their job was to apply their high-scale rescue expertise.

“So we had to think that if we had to get them down by rope or if we were able to use a crane to get them down…were they going to be able to assist us in this rescue?” Kuehner said.

It was a team effort between the South Walton Fire District, Panama City Beach Fire Rescue, and Deep South Crane Services.

“We called a crane as a secondary, they had a capability of getting up to 215-230 feet, 230 is what we needed and we were able to get the rescuers to them in a basket,” said Justin Busch, Panama City Beach’s Deputy Fire Chief.

South Walton’s Glen Kuehner was one of the individuals who braved the wind and climbed to the top.

“We had to hover over the top of it, step out onto the boxcar itself, and manually release the doors to gain access to the inside,” said Kuehner.

He says it was like trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target. After nearly 6 hours, they were able to harness the passengers and bring them to safety without any injuries. Why the SkyWheel stalled out is still unknown.

“There was a power outage locally we think that may be part of the causation of the incident but it remains under investigation,” said Busch.

Busch says Panama City Beach Fire has been in the process of creating their own high-scale rescue team with South Walton’s help.  

“So now this incident is gonna help expedite that process to get us up to speed,” said Busch.

South Walton’s tactical rescue team is a deployable state resource that can assist various agencies with high elevation rescues. They often travel to areas hit by hurricanes as well.

SkyWheel representatives say they are investigating the incident and remain in close contact with the passengers. The SkyWheel remained closed Friday.

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