Okla. firefighters sink rescue boat during training

Only two people were on the airboat at the time and neither were injured; both were wearing their life jackets

Tahlequah Daily Press

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s dive team and Welling firefighters worked with members of the Illinois River Area Volunteer Fire Department Friday to remove the IRAVFD's sunken airboat from the river after a training exercise went sour.

IRAVFD firefighter and board member Jerry Hammons said the boat went down during training operations about a half-mile upstream from Sparrow Hawk Camp.

“We’d been doing training all week, training new guys to operate the airboat,” Hammons said. “The current was too strong coming around a bend, and it washed the boat into a logjam. When it went into the logjam, the water rush from the boat running down the river came up over the boat. The backwash came in and sank it at that time.”

Only two people were on the airboat at the time, Hammons said, and neither were injured. Both were wearing their life jackets.

The OHP and Welling firefighters — who have their own flat-bottom vessel — met Friday morning and traveled to the site of the crash. Hammons said it took much of the day and the help of cables, ropes, chains, and a bulldozer, to pull the boat out.

“Initially it was partially submerged on its side, and in the process of getting it out, it became tangled up in some brush, and pretty much fully submerged,” Hammons said.

The airboat’s cage, which surrounds the prop, and what Hammons called the “headache rack,” were damaged, but the boat is being repaired. If no major issues are discovered, Hammons said the airboat should be operational and back on the river in time for the Memorial Day holiday.

Hammons said he turned in a $3,000 insurance estimate for the damage.

The IRAVFD has had an airboat for several years, and though there was previously only one operator trained for the vessel, the OHP recently trained about a half dozen of the firefighters. Those qualified pilots have trained others, according to Hammons, who is one of the qualified operators.

“We were doing the training to get ready for summer floating business,” he said. “On holidays and summer weekends, that boat may go out four or five times a day. We use it for water rescues, medical calls on the river, we use it for searches when someone goes missing on the river, and occasionally, law enforcement will use it if they need to go up river.”

Hammons said he and others from the IRAVFD were "proud" to have help from the OHP and Welling firefighters in removing the airboat from the river Friday.

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