Crossposted from seedcoalition.wordpress.com.
On the early morning of February 3, 2015, Heather Doyle and Carling Sothoron, two activists with Stopping Extraction and Exports Destruction (SEED), climbed a crane at Dominion’s construction area known as “Offsite A” in Lusby, Maryland, and hung a large banner from the top that read, “Dominion, get out. Don’t frack Maryland. No gas exports. Save Cove Point.”
They took this action to support the people whose lives would be put at risk with the completion of the Dominion Cove Point LNG export terminal and liquefaction plant, and also to support people across the Marcellus shale who have been living with the ravages of fracking.
On April 20, they both entered guilty pleas to a single trespassing charge each. Doyle is currently serving 39 days in jail, while Sothoron had a 40-day jail sentence suspended along with three years of probation and fines.
An important side of the story has not been told in order to not incriminate Doyle or Sothoron before their court appearances. Doyle was violently assaulted by Sergeant Vladimir Bortchevsky, and put at risk of major harm by Dfc. Robert Brady and others. Sothoron experienced a woefully amateur and potentially lethal response to her presence on the crane by the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Team, most directly by Dfc. Stephen Esposito. Officers Brady and Esposito were given a “Team Excellence” award on April 7, but in truth, the Sheriff’s Office was unprofessional, unsafe, unprepared and violent that day.
When the first police arrived on the scene, Sothoron was most of the way up the arm of the crane, being safely belayed by Doyle, who was at the base of the arm, about 15 feet above the ground.
I stayed at the base of the crane. The climber was using a lead climbing technique, and I was the belay person. It was my job to keep that climber safe in case they fell. I was also attached to the crane safely and held in by ropes, and I was sitting in a harness the whole time. So, I was completely secured and safe in my position on the crane. And all of our equipment was also secured to the crane, so there was no chance of anything falling anywhere.
When the police arrived on the scene, the other climber was a lot farther up the crane. They came up behind where I was kneeling on the crane. I told them we were there for a nonviolent peaceful protest and that I was the climber’s belay person and that her safety was up to me. I also informed [Dfc. Brady] that I had extensive experience climbing and that I knew what I was doing, and that we wanted to keep everyone as safe as possible.
He asked me if I was secured to the crane, and I said that I was safe. He then started to reach over, and he wasn’t tied into anything at that point. He wasn’t wearing a harness or anything like that. He reached over into the bag of the excess rope that I was feeding out toward the climber, and I told him that he needed to not touch the rope. I tried to pull the rope away with my free hand, and then he pulled the bag of rope back from me. He then took all of the rope out of the bag. Meanwhile, I was focused on keeping the climber safe and belaying her. He just wrapped the excess rope haphazardly around another beam above and behind me. There was no rhyme or reason to it. He wrapped it around several times and didn’t secure it in any way. This wasn’t a correct anchor, and I told him that that wasn’t any recognizable anchor. I also told him that, the way he had affixed the rope, I couldn’t put my brake arm down, and it’s necessary for me to keep my brake arm down to be able to keep the climber safe. I told him he was endangering her. I kept telling him this over a period of several minutes.
He eventually, I believe, realized that he didn’t know what he was doing, and then at that point, he undid the rope. He was like, “I’m going to undo the rope so that you can put your brake arm down and belay the climber.”
I also told him that, without the excess rope, the rope that he had attached to the beam, it had prevented me from feeding the rope up to the climber, so that if she wanted to descend out of the crane, that she wouldn’t be able to actually do that.
He said, “We’ll bring her back down the same way she came up,” and I said that wouldn’t be a safe way to do that. I said that she was an experienced climber, and it’d be safer for her to have the rope so that she could descend out of the crane.
At that point, he undid the rope — not because he was going to let me feed the rope to her, because I couldn’t communicate with her and also because he wasn’t going to let her do that — but he acknowledged that I had to bring my brake arm down to safely perform the belay.
When he undid the rope, I felt very unsafe, because I felt that he hadn’t taken proper steps when he had come up to keep everyone safe. I didn’t believe that he understood anything about the system that was there, and my expectation in actions like this is that they call … They wait for people to … You know, “Do no harm” first. You don’t touch things that you don’t know about, and wait for people to arrive who have skills to be able to properly assess and make safe choices in that situation.
When he undid the rope, I started to walk out farther onto the beams of the crane because I wanted to put space between him and me because I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t trust him to not mess with my safety equipment. I started to walk out onto the crane a little bit, and I took the rope out of my belay device because I felt like, at that point, it wasn’t unsafe for the rope to be out of my belay device. I felt like it would potentially make me safer to not have the rope attached to me. The rope that was being fed to the climber was not my safety. I had additional ropes that were affixing me to the crane. When I moved out, farther away, because I was afraid for my own safety, that’s when several other cops had arrived. I believe it was another Calvert County sheriff and two state troopers, and they started to tug on me. At that point, I was standing up, and there was a lot of slack in my cowtails and my rope system that created my safeties, and I was scared that they were going to pull me across the arm of the crane. At this point, I would say I was about 15 feet up off the ground. So, there was a lot of space that I could fall into. I was also aware that the cops weren’t wearing any sort of climbing equipment. They were just up there on their own without any regard or consideration for securing themselves to the crane.
I was standing up, and there was a lot of slack in my system. The ropes that I was using as my safeties aren’t designed to take a shock load. They’re static ropes, and they’re not designed for someone to take a fall. I was worried as the cops were pulling me back that they were going to cause me to fall and cause me to shock load my system, which can result in a lot of injury or potentially rope failure in extreme cases. I was very scared for my safety at that point and felt like the situation was being handled really haphazardly. They were trying to move quickly, as opposed to safely.
As they pulled me across, because I was being pulled by three large men, I tried to sit down into my rope system as much as I could, which I think angered the cops because it appeared that I was being non-compliant. They eventually pulled me across while I was trying to sit down into my system. When they got me back over to the beginning of the arm where they were able to somewhat stand and balance themselves, they turned me around and sort of splayed me out against the base of the crane. One of the state troopers each held my arms down sort of behind me. The cop who had first been on the scene with me was holding the rope that was attached to the other climber. And this other Calvert County Sheriff [Sergeant Vladimir Bortchevsky] stood in front of me, overtop of me. I was completely pinned down at this point [with her arms and legs fully extended from her body] and not struggling. I wasn’t trying to get away. But he stood overtop of me, and he put his forearm into my throat and started to press down into my larynx.
It was a lot of pressure. I could still make noise, so I wasn’t being completely strangled, but I was having a hard time breathing, and I was very scared. I was trying to tell him that I was having a hard time breathing, and he kept the pressure on my throat for about 20 seconds, and then he let off. He stared at me, and then he pushed his forearm back into my throat for about another 15 seconds. I was very scared at this point. I was surrounded by cops watching this other cop do something to me. There was no one who could see what was happening to me, and I was all alone at the bottom of the crane. He was assaulting me because he wanted to.
I felt like I didn’t know what to expect next, and it was pretty frightening. After he let off my throat the second time, he lifted up his boot, and he put the whole sole of his foot pressing down into my sternum. He was putting a lot of pressure into my ribcage and just pressing down really hard. It felt like he was trying to crush my chest. Then, he put his foot down and said, “Oh, I’m just trying to step over you here,” and was sort of smirking and smiling about what he had just done to me.
After that, they wanted to lift me up and over to get me to the other side and to bring me down off the crane, because they wanted me to be “safe.” They undid my ropes that were securing me to the base of the crane — although it took them a really long time to do it, because they didn’t know how to open the carabiners. They were just holding me down for a while while they were figuring out how to operate some pretty basic and essential climbing equipment. That also scared me, because it appeared that they didn’t know what they were handling.
After they finally did that, where they unsecured me from the crane, they passed me over the top while they were tugging on my jacket, they then were like, “Hold up, we’re going to make sure you’re ‘safe’ as you’re coming down,” which meant that they took my five-foot-long-each cowtails with carabiners at the end and attached the carabiners together, which is metal-to-metal, which you’re really not supposed to do ever in this climbing technique and then put it around a really tiny cable guide wire that was going up the crane arm so that I would be “secure.” Well, there’s a lot of issues with that. For one thing, the cable is at an angle. So, if I had fallen as they tried to pull me down, I would have slid down and slammed into the cab of the crane. I also could have taken a five-foot fall [before she was caught by the cowtails] and probably seriously injured myself because there was so much slack in the system. That’s not how you secure yourself at all to that equipment.
They were trying to pull me across and I was yelling that it was unsafe, that they didn’t know what they were doing, that this was not an appropriate way to secure me. I was yelling, “It’s unsafe, it’s unsafe, it’s unsafe! Let me just crawl down this other way.” They said they would, and I tried to crawl down, but they were still pulling me the whole time. So, I didn’t feel like I had any control to maneuver myself safely down the crane.
At that same point, the first officer [Brady] who had appeared on the scene and had previously wrapped the rope on the beam started pulling on the rope that was connected to the climber at the top of the crane. I said, “Stop doing that. That’s unsafe. You’re going to pull her down the crane.” He continued to ignore me. He didn’t seem like he paid any attention to what I was saying, but he had no visual on her.
He had no idea what the situation was up at the top of the crane, but he still was just pulling on her rope haphazardly. He could have caused her serious injury that way.
After I was taken down off the crane and was down on the ground, next to a muddy area, they started to take off my climbing equipment. I asked them to wait for a female officer, but they didn’t listen to me. A lot of male cops had their hands all over my lower torso and were taking off my harness. They wouldn’t allow me to take it off, which was also really difficult for me to experience. There was no female cop on scene to take me away, so they made me sit on the ground in the mud for a while. All the while, there were people making comments, saying things like, “Well, you can sit here at the bottom of the crane and watch your friend fall out of this crane.”
At no point did I see any sort of fire or emergency personnel on scene. One thing I know from personal experience and from other folks who have done these sorts of actions is that typically firefighters are the folks who are trained to perform high-angle rope rescue and also to deal with rescue situations like this, but I never saw any fire personnel on scene. It appeared to me with the Calvert County Sheriffs that I encountered that none of them had any sort of familiarity with the rope techniques that we’re using and did not demonstrate any understanding of the equipment that we were using.
What I experienced during my arrest in this action was a complete lack of regard for our safety. I also experienced an assault by law enforcement who are supposed to be protecting citizens in the community. I felt like they were acting very hasty and just wanted to demonstrate their control over a situation that they didn’t understand. I would have expected them to bring in emergency personnel who were trained to extract people in this situation. It felt like they were just trying to work with Dominion to resolve the situation according to their own terms and not in terms of safety. I experienced violence against my person, and I felt very unsafe interacting with the cops despite trying to communicate and do my due diligence to try to resolve the situation safely.
I was able to hear Heather through a phone earpiece, and I could tell right away that the interactions between the cop and Heather were not going very well — that he was being really intense and disrespectful to her, and really rough.
Heather was my belayer, which means that the rope that was attached to my harness was being managed by her. So, if that rope got pulled, then I would get pulled down with it. Pretty quickly, the cop took control of that rope, which felt really unsafe for me. I could tell Heather felt uncomfortable with what he was doing. I tied off my end of the line to the structure of the crane as quick as I could.
Having someone on the other end of the rope pulling on my rope who shouldn’t have been pulling on my rope made me feel really uncomfortable. It also made me question whether the cop had any idea of what he was doing.
That rope that I was attached to was my safety line. That was my way to get down off of the crane. Knowing that I didn’t have that option any more, I had to figure out a new plan.
Eventually, one of the Special Operations Team members, Steve Esposito, got chosen to be the guy to climb the crane. He climbed the crane a lot differently than I had. He decided to climb the top part of the crane, along which there were two cables running down the top part, so he attached himself to the cables and climbed up that way. I don’t even remember him having any rope.
He got to the point where I was and was standing above where I was. He immediately told me to get off the crane, knowing my way to get down had been compromised. He said I could come down on my own or come down with him. At that point, I looked at the equipment that he had carried up with him.
I’ve been climbing for quite a while now and have a lot of experience in technical climbing and have been training others in climbing, as well. And so, from my knowledge of climbing and rescuing, Officer Esposito was not prepared to bring me down off of that crane. He had very little equipment, and unless I was going to go for a piggy-back ride on him, that was not happening.
I asked him numerous times through our interactions on the crane if he could contact other officers at the bottom or whoever his supervisor is and ask if they can untie my rope so that I could come down on my own, which was the way that I felt the most safe doing, and he refused to even address that question. At one point, he informed somebody on the radio that that was my request, but the only answer was silence.
One of the important things that I think there is to mention is that Officer Esposito never once checked my safety while I was on the crane. In the report that was written, one of the first things mentioned is that Officer Esposito climbed the crane to make sure I was safe. That actually never happened. He never asked me what my systems were, how I was attached to the crane, if I had options of coming down on my own, and if I did, what those options were. And he never informed me as to how he was going to get me off the crane or how the other officers who were there were planning on getting me off the crane. I spent a lot of time just wondering what was going to happen next.
I was attached to the crane in a couple of ways. I had two lanyards with carabiner connections that I lashed onto two different beams on the crane, and I also had the line that I climbed up on that was anchored to a different beam on the crane, and I was still attached to that line, as well. So, technically, I had three points of safety.
I did feel safe from my own systems and my own setup. I felt good about where I was at on the crane. I didn’t feel like I needed another person to check, but I know that that’s what their role is to do, is to go up and see what my systems are. I feel like their job is to make safety a priority, and at no point did I feel like they did that.
Officer Esposito was connected to one of two cables that run from the top of the crane down to the bottom. It was hard from my angle, being at the bottom of the square of the crane, to know what his equipment setup was, but from what I could see, he was just attached by carabiners to the cable. I don’t know if he had some other apparatus that allowed him to squeeze the cable when he stopped, because if he didn’t, if he slipped or wasn’t hanging onto something, he would just slide all the way back down. That’s to say, I question his capacity to be rescuing me or to be assessing the situation of how things were at the top of the crane.
After a while, it felt like 30 minutes or maybe closer to an hour, I still was never informed as to what was going on to bring me down, but all of a sudden, the crane started to shake side to side. A crane operator showed up to actually move the crane to bring me down, and, again, I asked Officer Esposito on numerous occasions what the plan was. He said he didn’t have to tell me.
When the crane started to shake, I actually almost fell off of the seat where I was sitting. I was still attached to the crane, so I would have been fine, but that shaking made me really nervous. I also was under the impression that they wouldn’t be allowed to move the crane. I don’t even know if that’s legal for them to operate a crane while somebody is attached to it who’s not a worker.
The crane moved back and forth on numerous occasions for maybe 20 minutes. It would move a little bit and then take a break, and then move back and forth a little bit and then take a break. We were just getting shaked back and forth. I was able to hold onto a beam on the crane, so I felt OK, but Officer Esposito, who was on top of the crane and was actually mostly standing straight up most of the time and didn’t have a lot to hold on to, looked very nervous and uncomfortable. I actually felt worried for him, because he didn’t seem like he was in a very safe position for a crane to be moving.
Once it started moving back and forth, which it seemed to me like maybe they were warming up the crane or something, then eventually, they moved it all the way to the side and then lowered it. This whole process took quite a while, but I was brought down that way, and then all of my equipment was removed and I was arrested.
In the report, there’s a section that has Esposito quoting me, saying, “It’s not going to stop. It’s only the beginning.” I don’t feel like it’s that big of a deal that that quote is in the report, but the quote is very inaccurate. I never said anything to that effect. I think it’s just interesting how Officer Esposito created his own analysis of what was happening and what I was saying and why I was there, based off of barely any dialogue that he and I had.
Spending a couple hours on top of the crane, I was able to witness what was happening on the ground. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see that anything special was brought in for a rescue. It didn’t seem like there was any alternative than lowering the crane itself. There was no fire truck that was ever brought in. Even once I was on the ground, I didn’t see anyone else in climbing equipment. It just seemed like they came up with one option, and that’s the way that they were going to try it.
With my climbing experience, I felt very qualified to do what I needed to do while I was on the crane. Unfortunately, the interference of the cops, I think, compromised that. I don’t think their interactions with Heather or I helped create a more safe environment. I think they actually did the opposite. By tying off my rope, that prevented me from getting down the way that I was prepared to get down, and it didn’t really leave me with any other option. Also, the cops weren’t informing me of what my other option was. They weren’t letting me know what they were prepared to do to get me down. So, I spent a lot of time just worrying about what that was going to look like. Unfortunately, then, I had to completely trust them in getting me down. I wasn’t able to rely on my own experience and skills to get myself down from the crane because they had prevented me from doing that by tying off my rope.
The Calvert County Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly turned away participation by the fire department and other outside help during the protests against Dominion’s plans for Cove Point. The Special Operations Team, lead by Captain Ricky Thomas, seems to see itself as the go-to troupe, trained and prepared for any situation.
The Calvert County government, whether it’s been the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) or the police, has sworn again and again that it is prepared for any emergency related to the Dominion Cove Point LNG export facility that is under construction. But if it can’t handle two people climbing on a crane without assaulting them and putting their lives in danger, how are we supposed to trust that it can capably respond to a gas explosion in a residential area with no escape route? Mickey Shymansky, the former assistant fire chief of operations for the Solomons Volunteer Rescue Squad and Fire Department, stepped down last year after saying the county was unprepared to deal with an emergency at Cove Point. Many other County employees have been issued gag orders that prevent them from talking about the Dominion project, much less voicing their concerns. The BOCC has even blocked a safety study from taking place that would take a very simple and important first-step to determine what the risks are that need to be responded to.
It’s clear that we aren’t able to trust those who are supposed to protect public health and safety. It’s time we’re honest about that.