Denver rescue teams train for havoc of floods

By Christopher N. Osher
The Denver Post
Copyright 2007 The Denver Post
All Rights Reserved

DENVER — They practice for a night like Monday's over and over.

Even that very day, hours before the big storm, Denver's Fire Department rescue team was practicing swift-water drills.

So when the water was rushing and the mother was wailing, training clicked in.

Scan the water. Look for the child. Cut the rope that threatened to drag the woman under.

Tuesday, away from the floodwaters, rescue team members reflected on their work and on their inability to save 2-year-old Jose Matthew Jauregui Jr.

"Kids are the worst thing," said Technician Chad Cranmer, a 10-year Fire Department veteran and a father of two. "Everything else you find ways to deal with, but those are the ones that are tough."

The violent storm that hit Denver on Monday claimed the toddler after his mother, Elsha Guel, sought refuge in a concrete underpass. Both were swept away by the surging storm water.

By the time the rescue crew arrived, Guel was clinging to a concrete barrier in water that had risen more than 3 feet in less than an hour.

"As soon as we got there, the lady was screaming that her baby was downstream," Cranmer recalled. "But we had no visual sighting."

Rising all over town
Water had become a force throughout the metro area. The log book at the Fire Department details some of the chaos.

In Bible Park on Denver's south side, Denver police Officer Jairon Katz almost drowned trying to rescue a young man from the water. Two other police officers and several firefighters managed to save the officer by getting a rope around him and blocking a tunnel so he would not be swept downstream.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Fire Department still had not been able to identify or locate the young man the officer was trying to save.

The department's underwater dive team rescued from Cherry Creek a man in a wheelchair who'd been swept from the bike path into the roaring water.

At the intersection of South Havana Street and East Girard Avenue, rising waters forced people to take refuge on top of their cars.

Along a ramp on Interstate 25, travelers reported seeing water so high it poured in the window of an automobile.

The Fire Department's rescue team - each shift staffed by five people - is the group that sees the most action. They form the second half of any specialized team detailed to an emergency situation.

All the training means they're paid a little more, but it's not the money that attracted Cranmer to the rescue detail.

"It's to strive to work and be with the best," he said Tuesday.

Training takes over
It's a job that can come with the ultimate price. A classmate in Cranmer's academy class, firefighter Robert Crump, died in 2000 trying to rescue a woman in rising floodwaters in northeast Denver.

The rescue team had the toughest job Monday night, the one involving Jose and his mother. When they arrived at the scene, the firefighters found a rope tied around Guel's waist, complicating the rescue. The rope posed a threat because it acted as a weight dragging her further into the surging water, Cranmer said Tuesday.

Training took over. Technician Mark Ziemer went downstream, scanning the shore for any sign of the toddler.

Back with the mother, Cranmer and Technician Jordon Schoolmeester tried to get a ladder down to her without success.

Cranmer entered the water and cut the rope from around her waist. She let go of the concrete wall and was swept about 300 feet away from her rescuers.

The water "was moving so swiftly, probably 10 miles an hour," Cranmer said.

He went back in the water and made his way to the woman. He grabbed her and used the current to steer her safely back to land.

"I wish we could have gotten the child back," Cranmer said. "It would have been a lot better story."

For such losses, the department makes psychologists available to help ease the stress. But the crews prefer to deal with their emotions among themselves, Ziemer said.

"Most of the time it's just the crew," he said. "We're pretty tight, and we talk about it."

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