Wash. responders, civilians honored for saving life of retired fire chief

Retired Chehalis Fire Department Chief Bill Nacht went into cardiac arrest while waiting for a friend so they could go on a motorcycle trip

By Cody Neuenschwander
The Chronicle

CHAHALIS, Wash. — A lot of things had to go right for retired Chehalis Fire Department Chief Bill Nacht to still be around today.

His friend Ed Sylvia had to give him a call, telling Nacht to wait for him at Linda’s Fish and Chips in South Bend so they could ride their motorcycles to the coast together. Nacht was planning on taking the trip alone. If he had, he would have likely been all alone somewhere out on the road when he went into cardiac arrest.

Larry Beatty, the food trailer’s co-owner, had to know CPR.

The Raymond Fire Department also had to respond quickly.

“Who’d have thought I’d have to go to South Bend to survive such an event?” asked Nacht — very much alive and well.

Last week, a contingent of the Chehalis Fire Department went to a Raymond City Council meeting with plaques in tow, and presented the awards to the quick-acting fire department EMTs and citizens whose actions kept Nacht alive and onto the path of a full recovery.

By that time, it had been nearly four months since the June 18 incident — a day Nacht has no memory of. In fact, his recollection doesn’t kick in again until days later, when he was recuperating in Olympia’s Capital Medical Center.


Last evening the Chehalis Fire Department attended the Raymond City Council Meeting to present awards to members of our...

Posted by IAFF LOCAL 2776 Raymond Professional Fire Fighters on Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Despite the dark blotches blocking out his memory, Nacht tells the story well.

It was a clear day after a stretch of rainfall, and he wanted to take advantage of the nice weather by taking his motorcycle — or his scooter, as he calls it — to the ocean.

His pals, Bob Clarke and Sylvia, weren’t able to leave at the same time, but agreed to meet up with him later.

The last thing he remembers that day was installing a couple light fixtures in the kitchen of his Napavine home — a simple chore for his wife, in exchange for a day on the road.

Nacht stopped at Linda’s Fish and Chips for some lunch and was preparing to take off again for the next leg of the drive. Sylvia gave him a call, asking him to wait there for he and Clarke to catch up. It seems innocuous, but it was an unusual request, said Nacht. Mainly because Sylvia had no particular reason for calling, other than an intense, unexplainable feeling that he should.

The three sat at an outdoor table next to the food trailer. Sylvia got up to throw away trash from the meal, when Clarke noted Nacht had slumped over in his spot, gasping for breath.

Larry Beatty co-owns the place with his wife, Linda. He was having some sort of premonition of his own that day, too, saying he had intended to take off to run some errands. Instead, he stayed, based on nothing more than a feeling that he ought to be around that day.

Beatty’s son Bryan was alerted by one of Nacht’s friends that something was amiss. Bryan called 911, and handed the phone to his dad, just as Beatty began administering chest compressions on an unconscious Nacht. Clarke and Sylvia answered medical questions to the dispatcher over the phone. The time was 3:15 p.m.

Firefighters and EMTs with the Raymond Fire Department arrived six minutes later, with Beatty administering CPR the entire time. Efficient chest compressions put some wear and tear on the body, said Nacht. Later, in the hospital, he was shocked to look at his own chest, stomach and back and see a mass of dark bruising. His sternum still hurts.

Beatty said he couldn’t help but apologize to Nacht for the injuries the next time he saw him. Some soreness was a good trade for his life, Nacht replied. Beatty’s given CPR on a number of occasions, mostly to inmates of Stafford Creek Corrections Center where he works as a corrections officer. This was one of the few times the person took the time to say thanks afterwards, he said.

The EMTs went to work, shocking him with a defibrillator three times at the scene. He would later be shocked a few more times at the hospital.

At that time, there wasn’t much more Beatty could do other than stand back a say a prayer. When Nacht was loaded up and taken off, he didn’t think the story would have a happy ending.

“It was looking pretty grim,” he said.

Nacht would later say the fast-acting civilian response was what saved his life. For someone in his situation, CPR needs to start quickly.

Beatty didn’t know who the guy was he just spent minutes working on, applying chest compressions hard enough to break ribs. He certainly didn’t know he was a retired firefighter with nearly 40 years of experience.

For most of his life, firefighting was all Nacht wanted to do. His dad was a fireman for Chehalis before him, and Nacht remembers when he was young listening in on calls from home. His dad would take him to calls, and Nacht watched the scenes unfold from a safe distance.

After high school, he did a stretch of time in the Navy, before fully tackling his true passion. He spent his whole career in Chehalis, responding to “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of calls. Most were routine, some were substantial. He’s got enough stories to fill a day or two, if someone were inclined to sit and listen.

Nacht was around when Chehalis Fire Department Capt. Casey Beck was a rookie, and Beck said Nacht’s passion for the job was evident in the way he taught the cubs.

“Willy’s enthusiasm just rubs off on you,” said Beck, calling Nacht by his nickname. “Willy is a fireman’s fireman.”

After retiring in early 2007, after spending just over a year as chief, Nacht’s still a fixture in the firehouse. He stops by for lunch, and has high praise for the crew and Chief Ken Cardinale.

“I just loved it all. I wish I was still doing it. I would still if I could. Still miss it. I still get incredibly fuzzy when the fire truck goes by,” he said, adding later: “I never felt like I had to work a day in my life there. I just loved it. And it went so fast.”

Memorabilia and photos from his four decades hang on walls. Newspaper clippings fill a thick scrapbook, with articles detailing notable calls he responded to, promotions and ultimately, retirement. Nacht, now 70 years old, commented that the scrapbook was full, but he may have to find room for another story.

During an interview with The Chronicle, his cellphone began to ring. The ringtone was a fire truck siren. (It was Sylvia. He wanted to know if Nacht wanted to go riding. He couldn’t make it, Nacht explained; his bike was in the shop.)

After being whisked away from Linda’s Fish and Chips, he was taken to Willapa Harbor Hospital Emergency Department in South Bend. There, he was stabilized enough for additional transportation, and taken via helicopter to Olympia. That’s where he stayed till June 27.

At some point in the meantime, Nacht’s recollection kicks back in. The incident was described to him. He responded to enough medical calls to know he had been teetering on the line between life and death.

“Percentage of survival of something like this is absolutely, incredibly small, and everything has to hit just right to make it work,” he said.

Nacht gets choked up talking about the people who kept him alive. In the hospital, he felt like something of a celebrity. They all knew how unlikely it was that he actually made it.

“They just so enjoyed sharing a success, because, of course, they see so many times — they don’t have that kind of outcome,” he said.

He’s gifted the title of hero to laundry list of people he came into contact with in that short time. Now, he’s starting to feel like his old self again, saying it was estimated to take six months to a year of taking it easy before he’s entirely back in action. That sounds about right, he said during a mid-October interview. One of the toughest things to get used to is the feeling of a surgically implanted defibrillator on his chest.

That, and a new perspective. People ask him: For what purpose was he brought back? Nacht said he doesn’t know, but he figures the “big fireman in the sky” wanted him around a while longer.

Beck has a theory: “It just seemed like the universe decided to pay him back, and put all those people there in the right place at the right time, and keep him with us a little bit longer.”

For Nacht, he’s taking more time to appreciate each day. Each glance at his loved ones — his wife, Karen, his four kids and a slew of grandkids and great-grandkids — lingers a little longer now.

“To have your peers come in and recognize you for something special is just a special place to be,” said Raymond Fire Chief Todd Strozyk. “We all do the same job helping our citizens and people who call on stuff, and to get recognition from the people you serve is an honor in itself, but when you get recognized by your peers at that level, that’s a special place to be.”

Strozyk and Beck both called the story a testimony to the importance of citizens learning CPR. Beck said the American Heart Association website has more information, and most fire departments offer instruction.

Copyright 2018 The Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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