Latrobe water rescuers make a difference in central Pennsylvania
By Cody Francis, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
It wasn't until a serious call came across his emergency radio did Latrobe Assistant Fire Chief Will Walters realize the severity of his latest call to duty.
"The radios were going crazy -- people with cars in the water, people who need evacuated," Walters recalled. "We were listening and one came across about a resident pumping water out of his basement and his basement wall collapsed on him. That's when we all kind of looked at each other and said, 'We're in it.'"
Walters was one of 12 members of a water rescue crew comprised of emergency responders from Latrobe, Bradenville, New Alexandria and Lloydsville dispatched to central Pennsylvania recently to assist in the rescue efforts during the historic flooding caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.
During their 48-hour deployment, the crew rescued 25 people, seven dogs and two cats.
The crew, who have all trained together at one time or another to qualify for different certifications, was put together Sept. 7 in part by Latrobe fire Chief John Brasile.
Brasile received an e-mail that morning asking if there was anyone qualified to deploy to Dauphin County to assist in rescue and evacuation. Brasile, who did not travel with the team due to his commitments as Latrobe's fire chief, said with the manpower of the area fire departments, the men sent to the affected areas were able to act as an "individual strike team."
"We had the only unit that was self-operated," Brasile said, adding that the team was well-equipped, taking dry suits, rescue vests and four boats.
That unit, formed on the fly that Wednesday afternoon, had their work cut out for them as soon as they arrived.
"We were there for maybe 20 minutes and from the word 'go', we probably didn't stop for 12 hours," Walters said.
Their first job, according to crew Captain Brian Shultheis, who also serves as Lloydsville's fire chief, was to go after a couple who was trapped in their car in the water.
The crew's biggest rescue came next. The team was dispatched to a set of townhomes that were being threatened by rising water levels. The team performed a shuttle service for almost 20 stranded townhome residents.
Walters said the shuttle wasn't as simple as it sounds.
"The water was rising really quickly and while we were (evacuating the residents) we were actually dodging debris in the water," he said. "I actually ran over a car that I didn't even know was there until we hit it. We dodged a roof that floated down the stream."
Shultheis said the waters rose more than a foot during the two-hour rescue mission.
"Whenever we first got there, we marked the water level. While we were there we had to back up the road about 35 feet," Shultheis said. "It was rising fast, the waters were getting real rough."
Shultheis added that not everybody was a willing participant during the rescue.
"The first couple times, we went back and these two (people) said they weren't going with us. We sent a boat back down and said, 'Hey this is your last chance because we probably won't be coming back,'" Shultheis said. "They decided that the water was rising too fast and agreed to come out."
Not every aspect of the trip was positive, however.
On their last deployment, the team was sent to search for two cars with entrapped occupants. The occupants of one car were able to make it to safety before the team arrived, so they began to look for the second car, a Chevy Malibu.
"We searched high and low for (the second car), but we couldn't find it until the next morning," Walters said.
Shultheis said the strong currents didn't offer the team any assistance during the search process.
"We drove up to about three miles away from (the area where the cars had been sighted) and couldn't go any further, so we put the boats in the water and had to go three miles upstream," Shultheis said.
Not even the boats could make it through.
"The water was so fast, three boats couldn't handle the current, only one was able to make it all the way," Walters said.
After calling the search off for the second car, the crew decided to get some rest. When they resumed the search the next morning, the results were bittersweet.
"The next morning, we found the Malibu, but all we saw was the satellite radio antenna sticking out of the water," Walters said. "We then determined it was no longer a rescue operation, but a recovery. ... When the water level started receding, we were able to identify the car and confirm there was somebody in it."
Walters said the team did everything they could to find the vehicle in time, but dealing with loss is part of the job.
"It's part of our training, you have to decide is it really worth the risk to attempt to get someone who has been submerged under water for some period of time," Walters said.
After securing the area for the recovery team, the crew was told its time was up. With every member of the team safe, and running on minimal sleep, the crew considered the 48-hour deployment a success.
"Things went very, very smooth," Shultheis said. "We went out as a team, and even though we were all from different departments, people out there couldn't see that."
"We made a decision that we are leaving Westmoreland County as a team and we're coming home as a team," Walters added. "I couldn't ask for a better group of guys to work with."
Rescue crew members
• Will Walters, Chris Lehman, Tim Bolton, Latrobe Fire Co. No. 2
• Matt Bialo, Rich Kunkle, Latrobe Fire Co. No.5
• Ron Gary, Jonathan Schmidt, Bradenville Volunteer Fire Department
• Ted Malik, Watson Smith, New Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department
• Brian Shultheis, Mitch Samick, Jim Jellison Sr., Lloydsville Volunteer Fire Department