Swift-water rescue teams recount W.Va. flood rescues
Firefighter Tyler Wright: "We were one of the first people in there, and we didn't know what we would encounter."
By Andrew Brown
The Charleston Gazette-Mail
RAINELLE, W.Va. — Donald Farley, leader of the Bristol Fire Department's Swift Water Rescue team, had barely made it into Rainelle when he ran out of road.
Little Sewell Creek had already enveloped the small town in Greenbrier County with four to eight feet of muddy, turbulent water, leaving the few local emergency officials that were available nearly helpless.
When Farley and the other eight members of the special-response team parked their Chevy Suburban, heavily loaded trailer and full-size rescue truck next to the Hardee's, one police officer and a couple of ambulance crews were looking out over the rushing water toward what used to be downtown Rainelle.
In minutes, the nine highly trained professional firefighters from the border of Virginia and Tennessee were in action. They established a headquarters inside the fast-food restaurant. They pulled on their protective suits and helmets, unloaded the two rubber rafts from their trailer and split into teams of three.
Their red and gray boats hit the water about 1:22 a.m. Friday. With nothing but small headlamps to light their way through the pitch-black night, they didn't know what to expect. None of them had ever been to Rainelle -- nearly 200 miles away from their own homes. The maps they had weren't waterproof, and they were floating over street signs that could have helped guide their way.
"All we could see was just the edge of the water," said Tyler Wright, one of the Bristol firefighters in Team 2. "We didn't know what we were getting into. The biggest thing for us was just kind of going into the unknown. We were one of the first people in there, and we didn't know what we would encounter."
More than 17 hours later, their bodies ached from wading through oily water and rowing their rafts from house to house, searching for desperate Rainelle residents, including elderly and disabled people unable to flee upstairs or escape from the rising water on their own.
As the water began to recede late Friday and a larger emergency-response began to assemble outside of town, the nine men would be credited with saving at least 44 people and more than 20 cats and dogs.
They were only one of the many groups of first responders who fought to save West Virginians were trapped in their trailers, homes and cars as heavy rain overflowed streams and sent hillsides sliding onto highways Thursday and Friday.
But in one of the hardest-hit areas of the state, where local rescue crews were too few, the nine men of the Bristol Fire Department became one of the only lifelines for the people of Rainelle.
As Team 1 made its first of many trips into Rainelle on Friday morning, Farley, a firefighter for 17 years, couldn't believe what he saw.
The water was filled with kerosene, gasoline, propane and sewage. Nearly the entire town was under four feet of water. The lower-lying areas, along Horton Avenue, had water up to their rooflines.
In the early hours of the rescue, they were parking their boats on people's roofs. Farley routinely tested the depth, plunging his paddle into the murky water. At times, the 5-foot paddle and his long arms couldn't find the bottom.
As they rowed their way through the swift-moving water, the crews began to hear screams and pleas for help. Some residents waved flashlights from their bedroom windows or their rooftops -- anything to get the firefighters' attention.
Downstream, John and Ginger Ferrell clung to the roof of a dugout at the Little League field after being swept away from their home hours before.
"We could hear people hollering, screaming," Farley said.
There were people everywhere who needed to be rescued, but with so many in need, Farley and his team had to prioritize who they were saving. First came the elderly, the sick and the disabled. Next came women and children, and then the men.
"You can't just run out there and check every building you come to," Farley said. "So we divided up the town into little pieces of pie."
Back at the operational headquarters, in the dining area of Hardee's, the three members of Farley's crew who weren't manning the rafts were busy organizing emergency transport and trying to identify people and homes that needed help the most.
They asked the people who already had been rescued if they had elderly neighbors or if they knew of anyone in immediate danger. Those tips worked.
By the time Wright and the rest of Team 2 got to her house, one elderly woman had already been floating on her mattress for hours. Her hands, feet and lips were blue. The early stages of hypothermia had clearly set in.
She was bedridden, incapable of saving herself. Her frail body was so light that Paul Moss, another member of Team 2, was able to wrap her in a blanket and cradle her like a child as his team members rowed her to an awaiting ambulance.
"She just kept telling us how cold she was," Wright said.
The two raft crews also came upon people who weren't able to be saved. In those situations, they did what they could. They marked the home, secured the location and cryptically radioed back to their impromptu headquarters, letting their team members know they had found a body.
They wanted to shield people from the horror of losing neighbors and loved ones. By Sunday, the death toll in the tiny town stood at four. Without the work of the Bristol team, that number likely would have been higher.
"I do believe it would have been worse," Farley said. "There is no doubt in my mind."
As the night turned into day in Rainelle, the two boat crews continued to row people upstream to safety.
At times, they had four to five flood survivors in their rafts at one time. The boats, riding low in the water under the weight, made their work harder. When he could, Farley would get out and drag the rubber raft by hand, with water splashing at his chest.
He's 6-feet, 5-inches tall.
As they picked people up, the crews had to inform those who had just lost everything that they couldn't bring along personal items. Only the essentials were allowed into the boats.
On the rides to safety, the rescue crews listened to people sob over the loss of their homes. Many explained that they didn't have flood insurance. Others squeezed their rescuers' hands. Many were still recovering from near-death experiences.
Kelly Barker was one of those people. The Florida resident had been staying at the Cornerstone Inn, the bed and breakfast on Main Street, when the floodwaters hit.
She watched from her second-floor room as the water continued to rise, swamping her Toyota Tacoma. As she anxiously waited for rescue, she heard nearby screams for help. She tried to console the people who were letting out the frantic cries but, after a while, everything fell silent.
"It was like this eerily dead quiet," Barker said. "I can't express how quiet it got."
Barker found a flashlight and began signaling for help and, eventually, the Bristol firefighters pulled her onto the raft.
"I don't know who they are," Barker said Sunday, as she stood in the muddy downstairs of the bed and breakfast. "They saved my life."
As Barker was rowed upstream to the west side of town, she had to cover her nose and mouth with her shirt. What she initially thought was fog, turned out to be clouds of propane hanging low over the water.
Some of it came from small tanks used for people's backyard grills. Even more was leaking from 1,000-pound cylinders that were the length of two cars.
The flammable gas continued to belch out of the steel tanks that were strewn throughout Rainelle for hours after the water began to go down, making the rescue effort that much more difficult.
"It was just a bubbling sound," Farley said. "It just kept hanging around and hanging around."
When the West Virginia National Guard rolled into town late Friday morning, their trucks and Humvees were forced to stop, unable to pass down Main Street on their way downstream to Rupert, which had seen little to no response to that point. ?The water had dropped to around three feet by noon, Farley said, but it was far too dangerous to bring the trucks through town. One spark and the flood response would have turned into an even bigger emergency.
"When that stuff goes, it's not a slow burning fuel," he said. "It's very explosive."
By the end, the rescue teams' bodies were being broken down by their nonstop effort, but Wright said he never felt the physical effects of the work until he got back to Bristol.
"You do feel exhausted. It is tiring," he said. "But when you have five other people who are sitting in a boat waiting on you to get them out of a disaster, you don't really feel it."
Nothing they felt during the rescue effort, Farley said, can compare to what the people of Rainelle are going through now.
"We got to come back to our homes, and everything is there," he said. "We've got everything. They've got nothing now."
(c)2016 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)