Fire call: Sounding the alarm to save our vanishing volunteers

A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to benefit volunteer firefighters around the country


Editor’s Note:

Editor's note: We're pleased to present an excerpt from George DeVault's book, "Fire Call!: Sounding the Alarm to Save Our Vanishing Volunteers." DeVault, who spent 30 years as a volunteer firefighter, joined the Emmaus (Pa.) Fire Department to give back to his community. He rose through the ranks to become deputy fire chief, and later fire chief. The book explains what it's like to be a volunteer firefighter, and what we can do to help save our vanishing volunteers.

By George DeVault
Fire Call!: Sounding the Alarm to Save Our Vanishing Volunteers

It's the phone call everyone dreads: "George, this is Brian with the ambulance corps. We’re transporting your wife to Lehigh Valley Hospital. She was just involved in an auto accident."

She's OK, he assures me. No blood, no broken bones. Just badly shaken, clearly suffering a concussion.

It's what he doesn’t say that worries me. Is it mild, moderate or ... massive?

"Undetermined."

He just says come to the ER. Stat!

Mel was stopped, third in line, waiting to turn left at the light beside Pizza Hut, when ... wham! A woman in a minivan rammed her from behind.

"I was only going 5 miles an hour. And ... I wasn't on my cellphone," the other driver protested to police. Right. That’s why both of her airbags deployed, the rear of Mel’s Mercury Cougar crumpled like a beer can and Mel blacked out.

When Mel opened her eyes, a paramedic was in her face.

"Hi. What’s your name?"

"Uh, Melanie. Who’re you? What happened?"

"You had a little accident. Are you OK? Is there someone I should call?"

"My husband. My neck hurts. I don’t feel so good."

"OK. We called your husband. We’re going to take you to the hospital now. He’ll meet you there."

"I think I just want to go to sleep now," she said.

"No!" the medics protested.

By evening, doctors finally said it was OK for her to go home.

Mel had strict orders to stay in bed — and rest! It was tough to keep her down, though, with all of the work to be done around our farm.

The next day was Thursday, pickup and delivery day for the 100 area families we were feeding with our farm’s vegetable subscription service. It was also Sept. 16, 1999. And Hurricane Floyd was lashing the East Coast with high winds and torrential winds.

Then my fire pager went off. This was no automatic alarm set off by high winds. It was a rescue call. A man was being sucked into a 20-foot deep drain pipe.

I was a captain with the volunteer fire department in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, a town of 12,000 about one hour north of Philadelphia. My orders were to report to the scene of any emergency between my house and the firehouse, so I headed for the scene.

Rain’s coming down sideways. The main road is completely covered by angry brown water. But there is no quick way around it. I hug the crown of the highway where the water is shallowest and say a little prayer.

All the way, I'm trying to figure out where and what this emergency might actually be. There aren't any big bodies of water around here, just a few little ponds and creeks. Of course, a hurricane can change the geography in low-lying areas in a hurry.

Finally, I spot the chief's car in a yard below a big gray house. I wheel into the circular drive and start down the hill.

Life-and-death struggles automatically hit the "record" button, burning permanent images into the hard drive of our brains. I can still see everything that happened next in high-definition and technicolor. I can replay it as a continuous video loop, shift into slo-mo, or cut to a series of still photos. Being an old newspaper photographer, I favor still photos with the whirring motordrive and clicking mirror of my old Nikon F.

Whir-Click — Wide-angle panorama of a half-acre pond perched on a sweeping mountainside overlooking the Lehigh Valley. A woman runs along the grassy bank. She’s sobbing, screaming hysterically. “Help! Help! He needs help!" She’s soaking wet. Pelting rain plasters dark hair to her head and face. Emmaus Fire Chief Robert Reiss and a uniformed Emmaus cop stand on the bank. The cop has a huge coil of rope. About 40 feet out into the pond are two men, their heads barely above the water. One man has gray hair. He looks like he’s in his 60s. The other man is in his 30s.

The older man is treading water, bobbing up and down. He has to be really cold and tired. It’s mid-September, definitely not summer swimming weather. He’s trying to keep the younger man from flopping face-first into the water and drowning. The younger man is stuck solidly in one spot. Something mysterious and menacing, unseen beneath the dark water, locks his legs in a death grip. It’s a drain pipe. He’s literally being sucked down the drain.

Whir-Click — "I’m going in," I say to the chief. He doesn’t argue. It seems like a snap decision, but a hundred thoughts race through my mind first. This is a pond, I reason, not a raging river. There’s no current, no rapids, no rocks to knock me out. The victim is immobile, stuck in a pipe. I’m not trying to rescue a drowning man. And I grew up swimming in my family’s farm pond.

Whir-Click — Close-up of cops’ hands. I give him my pagers and strip off my bunker gear. I hand the chief my glasses and watch, grab one end of the rope and wade into the water, fully clothed. I should be wearing a life jacket, maybe a wet suit and a helmet, and have a lifeline attached to me. I don’t. We don’t have half of that equipment. I should also have a certificate that says I am trained to do this. I don’t. Closest I can come is the Lifesaving merit badge I earned as a teenager in Boy Scouts. That’s tough. If need be, I’ll beg forgiveness later. This is life-and-death.

Whir-Click — I’m swimming breaststroke, my eyes just above the surface of the water to keep men in sight at all times. The man in the pipe is not going anywhere. But the gray-haired man might. He’s swimming freely and is the biggest danger to me. If he cramps up or starts going down, he could take me with him. He may be an ally, but he’s also my enemy. I’ll keep the drain pipe between him and me.

Whir-Click — Zoom in on two frightened faces. There’s no cheery chitchat — “Hi, I’m George. I’ll be your rescue swimmer today” — like on TV. This is combat engineering.

The men are happy to see me, especially the gray-haired man. He’s tired. The other man doesn't know or much care about anything, except that he’s in great pain. His right leg is being beaten to a pulp by the incredible force of water gushing into the 10-inch wide drain pipe that holds him prisoner. He’s fighting fatigue, panic and pain. Shock and hypothermia can’t be far away.

Whir-Click — Think back to the ABCs of first aid — airway, breathing, circulation. The man in the pipe can’t breathe. The drawstring on his rain jacket hood is strangling him. I untie the string and pull the hood back, knocking off his glasses into the water. He doesn’t care. Neither do I. I’m still trying to figure out how we’re ever going to get him  out of here alive.

I have to get a rope around him. But how? Where? What knot should I use? There’s only one knot that you can trust with a life. Guaranteed not to slip or come undone. The bowline, one of the first knots you learn in Boy Scouts.

I get behind the man in the pipe, grab the drain pipe with my knees. The whirlpool starts sucking the bottom of my sweatshirt into the pipe. I scoot back, loosely lock onto the pipe with my feet, instead of my knees. Then I pass the rope around his chest and form a loop in the rope. My hands are a foot under water. I can’t see what I’m doing. I  snug the rope up under his armpits so he won’t slip out when they pull on the rope from shore.

"Pull!" I yell to the guys on shore.

"Stop!" the man screams. "You’re cutting me in half.

He flails his arms, pushing me down into the water as he fights to remain upright.

Whir-Click — Fade to black. I’m looking up through murky water. “This is not a good place to be,” I remember thinking. I don’t want to die. I especially don’t want to drown. I can’t think of a much worse way to die.

I plant my feet on the pipe and push off to escape his reach. Surfacing, I gasp for air. Then something touches me from behind. It’s a pair of big hands. Emmaus Firefighter hands me a a ladder belt. I cinch the belt tight around the man’s chest, wrap the rope through the belt’s carabiner and pop his left foot out of the pipe.

Whir-Click — The man’s face goes ghostly white. I lay two fingers on his throat.

"No pulse! I don’t have a pulse. Pull, pull, pull!" I scream.

The rope snaps tight. Four firefighters on the shore pull with all their might. The pipe and all of us in the water shift slightly toward shore. Then ... POP!

There’s a sickening sucking sound, and the man’s free.

Whir-Click — On shore, another hand appears. It belongs to the gray-haired man. He is now wearing a big smile. I clutch his hand. Then our arms wrapped around each other. Wet, stinking, shivering, we’re pounding each other on the back. We’re laughing. Or crying. Or both. YES! We got him out.

They say my dip in the pond lasted about 30 minutes. No wonder I was shivering. Chief Reiss wrapped a wool blanket around me, then a second one. He bundled me into his Jeep, and turned the heater on full blast.

Back at the house, Melanie was worrying. "He’s been gone a long time. I don’t have a good feeling about this call," she told her friends. Then she saw a man coming toward the open garage door. She was still disoriented, but instantly recognized the uniform. White shirt. Gold badge. It was ... the Fire Chief.

"Oh, my God!" she gasped. "No!" A look of complete horror covered her face.

She didn’t see me scrambling out of the passenger’s seat. So I started yelling. "I’m OK!  I’m here! I’m OK!"

The nurses and doctors at Lehigh Valley Hospital were expecting at least three victims, one with unknown but probably massive traumatic injuries and two with acute hypothermia. The ambulance brought only one, the trauma victim. That was probably a good thing because the ER staff had its hands full with just him.

His name was Christopher V. Barebo. He was 37, married and the father of two young children. He was a mess. His blood pH was 6.39, the lowest and most acidic that trauma doctors had ever seen. When deprived of oxygen, muscles release acid into the blood. That can cause serious heart, lung and kidney damage. Almost no one survives at much below a pH of 6.8. His core body temperature plunged to 93.2 F, threatening fatal heart arrhythmia. Tissue damage was so massive that he might lose his right leg. Doctors pegged his chances of survival at less than 50-50.

So how did all of this happen? It started innocently enough that morning with the water level rising rapidly in the pond. Chris fretted that it might overflow and flood his downhill neighbors.

Chris asked his wife to call him at work if it looked like the pond would overflow. It wasn’t long before his office phone rang.

Chris rushed home. He donned his raincoat and paddled out into the pond on an inflatable raft, something he did all the time. His plan was to remove an 18-inch tall extension on top of a vertical drain pipe to shorten the pipe and drop the water to a lower, safer level.

But when Chris removed the extension, it created an instant whirlpool. The raft exploded, wrapping around Chris’ right leg. The deflated raft flushed right down through the pipe. But Chris was too big for the pipe to swallow whole. He was stuck in the eye of the maelstrom with his right leg completely inside the pipe and his left ankle grinding against the sharp lip of the drain. Dee and Chris’ father, Charles, 65, tried to free Chris. When they couldn’t, Dee called 911. Charles stayed with Chris in the water, trying to keep his son from drowning. The pipe didn’t release its grip on Chris until the elbow joint in the bottom of the pond broke, eventually draining the pond.

That afternoon, our home phone rang. It was Ron Devlin from The Morning Call with "another dumb question from my editors." But I fired off the first question.

"How's our patient?"

"Critical."

Critical! I was stunned, devastated. What did I do wrong? I felt like it was all my fault. What could I have done differently, quicker, better, safer, stronger, gentler?

What did I do wrong?

Not a blessed thing, Chris’ mother reassured me that evening when I called their home. I couldn’t help it. I had to call. The suspense was killing me, and Melanie, too.

Turned out Chris’ family was thinking about calling me right about that time, too. They had just looked up our number in the phone book. Then someone said, "Nah, he probably does this all the time, and doesn't want to be bothered at home.” Right!

"He's not out of the woods yet, but he’s making progress," said Chris’ mother. There was so much massive tissue, vessel and other damage that they may have to amputate part of his right leg. His kidneys were shutting down because his whole body was so overloaded with toxins. By Friday morning, his body temperature was normal and his kidneys were working again.

What a relief! They weren't mad at me. And it looked like Chris would be OK.

As Thanksgiving approached that year, writers at both the daily and weekly newspapers got the bright idea to do a Turkey Day feature on someone who was truly thankful for something — like being alive. Ron Devlin of The Morning Call interviewed Chris and Dee Barebo. He sent a photographer out to their house. Over the mantle hung a huge banner that read, “WELCOME HOME DADDY. WE LOVE YOU!” Little handprints and other artwork from his children adorned the sign. The banner was in the background of a four-column color photo at the top of the front page. The photo showed Dee planting a big kiss on a smiling Chris. “Holiday takes on new meaning for Upper Milford man, who almost lost his life in Floyd aftermath,” the subhead read.

"I appreciate my family, the healers, the firefighters and my friends a lot more. This Thanksgiving, the clichés actually mean something," Chris said in the article.

Corrine Durdock of The East Penn Press arranged a face-to-face meeting between Chris and me. I met Chris in his office near my house. Corrine didn’t get many good quotes. Chris and I didn’t have too much to say. That wasn't because we didn't want to talk. We just had a hard time saying anything to each other without choking up. We still do.

What brought a lump to my throat was the fact that Chris was walking. He was skinnier and using a cane, yes. But he was alive, standing upright, and walking under his own power — on his very own right leg. He didn't lose it in the pond when we heard that "pop!" and horrible sucking sound. The doctors didn't have to amputate.

The next year on Sept. 16, the first anniversary of our adventure in the pond, a huge arrangement of flowers was delivered at our house. Accenting the bouquet were four of the biggest rolls of "Life Savers" candy they make. The thank you card read, "You’re a real Life Saver! Chris Barebo and Family."

I kept the candy, but the flowers rightfully belonged to Melanie. Like Chris Barebo, she will always remember that date as the worst — and best — day of her life.

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