FORT RUCKER, Ala. (July 19, 2017) - It was another wet, dreary day in southwest Oklahoma. We'd been dealing with rain for a week and the roads were flooded. Driving to work was a significant event, as vehicle accidents were occurring all over the place due to standing water.

When I arrived at the Fort Sill Fires Center of Excellence Antiterrorism-Force Protection office, my co-worker, Bob, asked if I'd heard about a vehicle that had been pulled from the river. I hadn't, so he proceeded to tell me that Fort Sill Fire and Emergency Services had just retrieved a vehicle that was submerged at the 5-mile low water crossing site. The driver-side door was open and the vehicle was empty.

Not long afterward, one of our supervisors rushed into the office and announced there would be an impromptu meeting at the emergency operations center in 15 minutes. As a member of the Force Protection team, I would need to attend, so Bob and I rushed over. The battle captain announced the commanding general was on his way to the meeting and a briefing was being prepared to inform him about the recovered vehicle.

"We think we may have a Soldier in the river and hope we can find him still alive," the battle captain continued. "The unit cannot get ahold of him, so we don't have confirmation yet on his whereabouts."

Following the briefing, the CG turned to the public affairs officers and asked them to develop a strategic communications plan on how we would communicate this incident to the public. He ended the briefing by saying: "We need all available resources out there. Our goal is to find this missing Soldier." He then requested two daily updates until the Soldier was located.

Operations orders were published directing the CG's guidance, and unit-provided spotters were posted at strategic locations with good visibility of the river. All personnel were briefed to look for anything resembling a body. A couple of days into the operation, two Soldiers who were whitewater rafting spotted what they thought was a body bobbing in the river. However, as they made their way closer to get a better look, they lost sight of it. The Soldiers reported what they had seen, and additional assets were brought in to help with the search.

The Air Force National Guard brought in swift-water rescue boats, cadaver dogs and volunteer search teams. Local law enforcement teams also showed up to assist, and more boats were brought in from the National Guard. Five days later, there was another spotting of what appeared to be a body floating downstream. The swift-water boat crew was able to get close enough to confirm it was the missing Soldier and successfully retrieved his body from the river. It was a sad moment for everyone. An autopsy confirmed the Soldier drowned.

According to a safety message released about the incident, the investigation concluded that the Soldier attempted to drive his private motor vehicle over the low water crossing. He had underestimated the amount of water flowing over the crossing due to the weeklong rain. The Soldier assumed he could easily drive through the crossing, but his vehicle was lifted off the pavement and pushed into the swollen river. The vehicle was submerged in 10 feet of rushing water, causing him to drown.

This Soldier's death was tragic for his unit, Fort Sill and the Army. Had he just heeded the National Weather Service's guidance regarding flooded roadways - Turn Around, Don't Drown - he'd still be with us today. It was an expensive lesson to learn; however, it caused the installation to review its processes on the marking, assessing and closing of low water crossings on post. As a result, new high-level water markings were installed and an updated policy was written on what actions to take during periods of heavy rain and flooding. This Soldier's death was a terrible loss, but hopefully these new processes will prevent a future tragedies from occurring.

FYI - Each year, more deaths occur due to flooding than from any other thunderstorm-related hazard. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than half of all flood-related drownings occur when a vehicle is driven into hazardous flood water. The next highest percentage of flood-related deaths is due to walking into or near flood waters.

People underestimate the force and power of water. Many of the deaths occur in automobiles as they are swept downstream. Of these drownings, many are preventable, but too many people continue to drive around the barriers that warn the road is flooded. A mere 6 inches of fast-moving flood water can knock over an adult. It takes just 12 inches of rushing water to carry away a small car, while 2 feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles. It is never safe to drive or walk into flood waters.

Source: National Weather Service

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