THE VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS HAD BEEN SENT TO NORTHERN BUTLER COUNTY FOR WATER RESCUES WHEN THEIR BOAT FLIPPED.
…It’s amazing when things go wrong, your training kicks in.”
By MICHAEL MOLITORIS
About two hours after Emlenton firefighters were dispatched to northern Butler County for water rescues late Friday their boat capsized, leaving three men stranded in swift, chest-deep water.
Emlenton Fire Chief Dave Whitehill said he and two other Emlenton water rescue firefighters were dispatched around 1 a.m. Saturday to retrieve a man and his dog from their home when the boat flipped. Waters from the flooded Connoquenessing Creek near Evans City, Forward Township, were already halfway up the windows in the man’s home.
“There was really swift water and a downed telephone line down caught us and flipped us,” Whitehill said.
Immediately after the boat flipped, a wealth of accident training automatically kicked in, Whitehill, 48, said, helping pull him through his first experience of being stranded in powerful floodwaters.
“You’re trained that when you come out of the water you clear the water above your head,” he said, indicating he stuck his arms above him to make sure nothing was in his way. “I grabbed hold of that phone wire that flipped us. It caused the accident, but it saved my life. … It’s amazing when things go wrong, your training kicks in.”
Whitehill said he had no idea if the wire was for electricity or telephones, but he knew the outcome wouldn’t be good if he didn’t do something.
“All I knew is if I left go of the wire, I was going to be gone,” he said.
Safely grappling the phone wire, the chief inched his way across the expanse until he reached a utility pole and kept himself lodged there until help arrived. He then started yelling for the other men, Chad Grieff and Bob Sloan – both firefighters in their 20s.
“I started yelling and I heard them yelling back. … I watched them both grow up. I’m really good friends with the one’s parents. It was really close and that part was hard on me. I couldn’t really tell if there were one or two voices,” Whitehill said, recounting the uncertain 90 minutes to two hours the trio spent in the muddy waters. “The thing that kept me going was my family.”
When the rugged inflatable rescue boat flipped, its bow lodged against the street below, leaving the stern and motor bobbing above water. Grieff and Sloan stood in chest-deep water holding onto the boat.
Whitehill said a swift-water rescue team eventually plucked the men from the flooded creek. Whitehill said he was shaking, suffering from mild hypothermia, but when he got back to shore, Unionville Fire Chief Mark Lauer was the first person he recognized.
“I said, ‘Mark, you make sure you get those other guys out.’ It’s a brotherhood, and they did their job, thank God,” Whitehill said.
It was just three years ago that Lauer’s department lost two divers who were swept under by currents and died while trying to find a kayaker in McConnell’s Mill State Park.
Emlenton firefighters returned Sunday to Butler County to retrieve the boat, and a final damage estimate has not been figured. Whitehill said the boat will have to return to its manufacturer.
The chief knows the department lost radios, ropes and lights. It’s estimated the costs could top $30,000 or $35,000 – some of which the department hopes Federal Emergency Management Agency monies may cover.
Whitehill also revisited the utility pole that helped save his life. He believes he was holding onto the pole seven feet off the ground.
“Twenty-some years in the fire service and this was the closest it’s ever been,” he said. “Please, if you want to be a firefighter, take your training seriously and don’t ever quit training. Swift-water training – you can’t have enough of it. We’re used to the river and that’s not swift water.