Firefighters rescue driver from creek
July 22, 2010
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Luck kept a 43 year-old retired Soldier alive in the early morning hours of July 13 when his truck was swept away in the fast current of Medicine Creek.
He was lucky his truck stayed upright and didn't roll over putting him under the fast moving water. He was lucky the truck was stopped in the middle of the swollen creek by a fallen tree.
He was lucky his cellular phone worked.
And, he was lucky the water hadn't taken him 10 feet farther down river.
As little as six inches of water, flowing at 15 or 20 miles an hour, can cause a driver to lose control of the vehicle. Most vehicles will float in two feet of water, according to the State of Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
"The Military Police do an awesome job of closing the low-water crossing anytime it gets to that 6-inch mark," said Clint Langford, Fort Sill Fire Department assistant chief. "They put barricades up, but every stinking time we've done a water rescue is because someone has went around the barricades."
Post Directorate of Emergency Services authorities say the stranded driver moved the cones blocking 4-Mile Crossing July 13.
Langford said he's been on four swift-water rescues at 4-Mile Crossing in his 15 years on the post fire department. He said motorists, privately owned vehicles and military vehicles alike, have needed rescuing at every low-water crossing on post in that time.
Langford said over-confidence and underestimating the water is usually what causes drivers to think they can make it across a flooded crossing.
Einstein tells us for every foot water rises up a car, the car displaces, or loses, about 1,500 lbs. If an average vehicle weighs 3,000 lbs. it will float in two feet of water. Add a swift moving current to that and it becomes a wild and dangerous ride.
"Water weighs 8.3 pounds per gallon and you have thousands and thousands of gallons moving downstream. That's a lot of force pushing against you," Langford said. "So even six inches of water flowing downstream is a whole lot of weight pushing against your vehicle."
The driver in the July 13 incident road his four wheel-drive truck over the crossing and down the creek bed until it was jammed against an entangled tree, according to official reports. The water current kept him from opening his driver's door while the passenger-side door was pinned against the debris. He was able to call authorities for help.
Dispatch logs show Fort Sill Police arrived minutes later and firefighters arrived within seven minutes.
Fort Sill firefighters don't get to train on swift water rescue very often. When they do, it's more of a simulation in a dry creek bed or stringing ropes across an airfield hangar to practice getting to a victim.
"On these things, we kind of get the training and the real world experience all in one," Langford said.
Fire Capt. Scott Finney was one of the first firefighters on the scene and he said all he could think was, "We got another one."
"I thought, 'He doesn't have any more sense than this.' He's put himself in a bad spot. He's also put 12 of us in a bad spot, because now, I've got all these guys that I'm having to put out on the tip of a ladder to get him out of somewhere he should have never been. I wouldn't expect my 16 year-old daughter to move safety cones out of the way and drive into the water," Finney said.
Firefighters around the world are taught to Reach, Throw, Row and, as a last resort, Go. First they try to reach for the victim from shore. If they can't reach the victim, they try throwing a rope. If that doesn't work, they try using a boat, if one is available and the water conditions don't make it too dangerous. Finally, if all else fails, a firefighter will enter the water to attempt the rescue. Langford said, many times when a firefighter enters the water, they soon need rescuing.
"I would much rather enter a burning building than get into fast moving water," he said.
On July 13, the rescuers stretched the long ladder of Fort Sill's only aerial truck over the creek to reach the victim. It came up short so they attached a regular fire ladder to the end and made the connection. Had it still been short, it would have been on to Plan B, said Langford.
"Next would've been stringing lines across the creek and everyone would've been getting wet and would have been in much more danger."
Langford added that shooting ropes across the creek and setting them up correctly takes a minimum of an hour before someone even attempts to reach a victim.
When it was over, the victim was a little tired and a little wet. He was cited under Section 47, 11-1302B of the Fort Sill Traffic Code by Fort Sill Police for "driving through a traffic control device to enter a closed area."
His pickup truck was removed from the creek, at his expense, by a civilian towing company that same day.
"We know each summer, when the rains start coming, that we're going to get these calls," Langford said. "The maddening thing is they are 100 percent preventable. The police don't close the low-water crossings to be mean, it is literally a life or death decision. Don't drive around the cones, there is always another route to where you want to be."