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Killeen, Texas: Swiftwater Rescue

On March 19 in Killeen, the weather was pleasant, but the area was expecting heavy rain. The technical-rescue team members on B shift began to get ready for a possible flood event.

That evening, extreme flooding began around the city and surrounding areas. After responding to several events, Capt. Adamski from Battalion 1 called in extra personnel to prepare for more potential flooding. A crew was brought together to operate the rescue boat, including four flood and swiftwater rescue technicians: Justin Todd, Darren Morphis, Scotty Jones and Marc Clifford.

The first request for the boat came in around midnight to a mobile home park with a creek that flows right next to it. Working with fire personnel already on scene, the crew started evacuating everyone who would go. Some disabled people located near the creek were carried to the evacuation bus first, then others from the rest of the houses were carried or helped to the bus. After every home was checked, the boat returned to station.

At about 2 am, a call came in from Harker Heights for a car swept into the river. The temperature outside was now in the low 50s.

Upon arrival, the crew found the current flowing really fast with a lot of trees; they could hear the screams from a woman. Locating her was a challenge because the only lighting they had was from flashlights and lighting devices from the fire apparatuses.

Killeen FD Medic 3, who saw the car being swept away, told the boat crew where she was last seen. Everybody on scene quickly placed the boat into a ditch—their best spot to dock—and into the water.

At the docking area, water ran over the road, causing a small hydraulic that pulled the boat toward the road. Todd overcame the difficult hydrology and got the boat into the main current of the creek. Shortly after, a crewmember spotted the victim; she was out of her car and holding onto a tree in the current. All they could see of her was her forearms and face.

The boat’s bow was placed against a tree to create an eddy and relieve the water pressure against the victim, but she was too tired to enter the boat on her own. Clifford entered the water to get her into the boat. Jones and Morphis grabbed her arms and with Clifford pushing her up, they pulled her in.

Suddenly, the motor died; Todd maneuvered the tiller to keep the boat as stable as possible and switched gas tanks, and the motor started back up. He maneuvered the boat back into the current and made it back to River Right and the victim was transported to the ER for treatment.

The boat was placed back into service and headed back to Killeen.

Before leaving Harker Heights, the boat crew went to a neighborhood nearby and helped elderly disabled people evacuate their homes, helping them get to a nearby bus. While the crew was clearing that neighborhood, it was called back to the scene of the first rescue—two more cars had been swept into the current by the floodwaters.

The crew got back at 0330, where the water had developed into a stronger current. Word came over the radio that a person had got out of his vehicle and was being taken downstream by the current.

The boat was placed back into the ditch and pulled into the current. Upon leaving the shore, Todd counted heads and noticed they had an extra man now, Mark Whiteley. The rescuers were becoming cold, so the IC added a warm rescuer to the crew.

The rescue boat accelerated downstream with Morphis as the bowman and Todd as the boat operator. Jones, Clifford and Whiteley would serve as rescue swimmers.

The crew spotted the victim and Todd moved the boat into position to retrieve him. The crew pulled him into the boat and they took him to where a medic unit and an engine company were waiting. He reported that another car ahead of him had gone further downstream. The boat crew headed that way.

After some distance, taillights were spotted from the back half of a car protruding out of the water. The car was resting against a tree, but looked like it could come off at any moment; the chances of finding someone alive seemed dim.

Todd positioned the boat against a tree with the right side of the boat toward the car. He kept the motor steady to maintain position as the current pushed against the boat. The crew faintly heard a woman screaming for help.

Jones maneuvered himself on top of the car and began to break the glass. The car still seemed unstable, but Jones continued to work. He worked break the back glass with his knife, although the knife was not equipped with a glass-breaking tool. He finally broke the glass and cleared it out; the victim had only about one square foot of an air pocket left.

The victim was pulled into the boat, which headed back upstream to hand her off to paramedics. The boat crew reversed out to make their way across the channel to their trailer, but the boat got into turbulent water, came to a sudden stop and turned a 180.

The River Right shore crew thought the boat had flipped because they couldn't see it; the River Left crew could see it and began to make preparations to help them to shore if the crew had to bail out. The motor was running, but the boat was going nowhere. Todd tried his best, but the boat didn't progress. All of a sudden, the boat's back left air chamber got ripped. Todd knew that whatever was under the water stopping them was significant.

After the back left chamber deflated, the left side of the boat began to take on water. The current was so powerful that the water poured into the boat at an alarming rate. Todd called out to the crew to be ready to bail out if the boat went under. He blew on his whistle 3-3-3, calling an emergency. The shore crews were on high alert and very aware of the boat crew's dire situation.

The boat crew had to find a way to get out of the river safely. Downstream was completely dark and there was no way to know what was down there or where they could get out. The current was significant and their nearest egress point was about 70 yards downstream on River Left. To make matters worse, the boat crew would have had to swim through heavy brush that were the tops of trees in significant heavy current.

Todd throttled the motor as far as it would go and started to move the tiller back and forth, left and right. He started switching the gears in the motor, trying to free the boat from whatever held it. The entire crew remained calm during this ordeal.

After a few moments, the boat moved out into the current, and Todd maneuvered it to River Left where crews were waiting. The three rescue swimmers loaded up on the right side of the boat while Todd positioned the inflated side against the current in order to prevent taking on any more water. The act of the rescue swimmers climbing onto the right side of the boat prevented them from heading downstream or under water.

The boat was placed out of service; later, a two-foot rip in the chamber was found; the motor prop was damaged as well. Luckily, nobody else had to be rescued that day.

Chief Jerry Gardner submitted this Valor Award nomination.

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