Firefighters use airbags to rescue woman trapped under collapsed roof

SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – It was one of the most dramatic rescues during the deadly tornados that tore through Sarasota and Manatee counties. Firefighters showed News Channel 8 exactly how they saved one woman’s life.

When you see the image of Nancy DeVito’s bed nearly two days after a rare EF2 tornado hit the Siesta Key area, it’s hard to believe she made it out – from underneath – alive.

DeVito’s boyfriend, Cameron Brady, was also in the house at the time and had to be rescued. He remembers distinctively the moments before the tornado hit. “Nancy was there in this quarter and she was walking down the hall, and that’s when it hit,” Brady told News Channel 8.

PHOTOS: Tornadoes, storms cause overnight damage

DeVito was stuck for more than 30 terrifying minutes as she remained helpless in a space of just 18 inches.

“Just seeing the conditions of the roof and how it pancaked over in the tornado, there weren’t really any void spaces for her to be in. She was lucky enough to be in the right one,” said Lt. Stephen Zaller of the Sarasota County Fire Department.

DeVito owes her life to a special tool Sarasota County firefighters carry with them – airbags that can lift up to two tons of weight off the ground.

These airbags are typically used to rescue victims involved in car accidents, but on Sunday morning, they were used to free DeVito after the structural collapse. Firefighters gave News Channel 8 a look at exactly how the airbags work.

Siesta Key rescue

“We tried to use leverage, pry bars, basic tools, but we just couldn’t lift the structure enough to get the patient out,” Assistant Fire Chief Bill Hoag said.

Firefighters Stephen Zaller and Brendan Kelly were among the rescue crew members that delicately raised the roof off of DeVito as straight line winds were gusting at speeds of 40 miles per hour.

“We were worried (the wind) would shift the debris and make the conditions worse for us, make the conditions worse and hinder the chances of rescuing the victim,” Zaller told News Channel 8.

In the end, the airbag did just the trick, freeing DeVito to be carried out in the arms of first responders, all thanks to a combination of preparation and persistence.

“We train on these things thousands of times and never get to use them. It’s kind of like being a thoroughbred and never getting to race. But at that moment, we were able to put our training into the process of actually saving someone,” Hoag said.

After the extensive tornado damage the area sustained on Sunday, Hoag is urging residents to participate in Sarasota County’s CERT Program. Through this program, residents can find out what they should do in the case of natural disasters and emergencies. In addition, residents can take first aid and CPR classes.

Hoag also encourages residents to register their neighborhoods so that emergency crews can identify one point of contact for specific areas in the event of a natural disaster or emergency.  For more information, visit or call (941) 861-5000. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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