Swiftwater Rescue Protects Rescuers and Gives Victims a Fighting Chance to Survive
by Nancy J. Rigg
Adam Bischoff was 15-years old. Earl Higgins was 29. Joel Burchfield was 11. Gail Ortega was 18. Cary Dean Burlew was 11. Jose Romero was 39. Robert Diaz, Jr. was only 2-years old. 39-year old Young Woo Kang was visiting Los Angeles from Korea. CHP Officers Britt Irvine and Rick Stovall were doing what they always did, serving the public, trying to help motorists in trouble. 33-year old John Henderson was a single father on a hike with his 9-year old son, Matthew. And Griselda Gallo, 14, Dulce Castruita, 14, and her brother Raul Nahle, 17, were high school friends who clung to one another, arm in arm, during their last few moments on earth.
All perished in swirling, churning floodwaters in Southern California.
On February 17, 1980, my fiancé, Earl Higgins, and I witnessed two young boys riding their bicycles perilously close to the edge of the flood-swollen Los Angeles River. Jimmy Ventrillo, who was just 10-years old, got too close to the water’s edge, accidentally dipping the front tire of his bicycle into the water. The current was so forceful, both bike and boy were pulled into the deluge. When Jimmy cried out for help, Earl made a thoughtful, heroic attempt to rescue him. He ran to the river’s edge, removed his belt and tried to use it as an improvised throw-bag, tossing it to the boy, with the hope of reeling him back to the shore. But when Jimmy grabbed onto the belt, the power of the moving water pulled Earl into the river, too. The stark image of man and boy being swept downstream at about 25 miles-per-hour is something that will haunt me always. Earl’s remains were not recovered until an agonizing 9-months later during a dredging operation 30-miles downstream in the Los Angeles Harbor.
Why, why weren’t rescuers able to save Earl? Even as I struggled to rebuild my life in the aftermath of a flood disaster that killed more than 30 people in Los Angeles and caused millions of dollars worth of property damage, nothing seemed to quell this question. Every time there was flooding in Southern California, I counted the dead. With only a few exceptions, everyone who was swept away perished. There were no happy endings. Los Angeles flood control channels and rivers were open death traps.
The concerns I expressed to politicians fell on deaf ears and eventually dried up in a desert of disinterest when a lengthy drought set in. In February 1992, the drought ended when a series of powerful storms pummeled the Southland, wreaking havoc from Ventura County to San Diego killing more than a dozen people.
The death of one young man was especially painful, coming just a few days before the 12th anniversary of Earl Higgins’s death. 15-year old Adam Bischoff somehow slipped into the torrent and was swept for miles downstream past rescuers who still had neither the training nor equipment needed to perform a safe and effective “swiftwater rescue.” Adam drowned on February 12th and his remains were recovered the next morning when the floodwaters finally receded.
Adam Bischoff’s death mobilized our community in a way that no previous tragedy had. Political leaders, who finally emerged from the fog of risk management denial with pained and bewildered looks on their faces, suddenly wanted to know why local emergency responders were so ill prepared to handle inland water rescues. Although a handful of visionary water rescue specialists, including Los Angeles County Lifeguards, City and County firefighters, and rescue paramedics and helicopter pilots from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, had been quietly working for years to improve swiftwater rescue capabilities within their own agencies, it was only when the Los Angeles City Council and County Board of Supervisors got behind them that efforts to standardize and coordinate swiftwater rescue training, fund the purchase of much-needed equipment, and develop a proper flood safety education program were realized.
Flooding is the leading cause of weather-related death not just nationwide, but worldwide. Because no federal agency has consistently tracked death statistics in floods and incidents involving swiftwater, and since criteria state-to-state for judging what constitutes a “flood related death” is haphazard at best, I can refer to the World Congress on Drowning – 500,000 drowning deaths per year, and the Centers for Disease Control – 2500-3000 drowning deaths per year. But these statistics don’t include flood, hurricane, tsunami and other aquatic tragedies, including boating accident deaths. Regardless of the cause, too many lives are lost in water in incidents which are 99% preventable “if only…”
One undeniable factor in the high death rate worldwide is the general lack of swiftwater rescue training and equipment for rescue personnel, who too often struggle, on the spur of the moment, to “do the best they can,” improvising rescues, like Earl Higgins did, often with equally tragic results.
In talking to Mike Turnbull of Rescue 3, one of the pioneering swiftwater rescue training firms, more than 150,000 fire-rescue, law enforcement and other personnel have received Rescue 3 swiftwater rescue training and certification. This is great – but it’s also a drop in the bucket if you consider that there are 1 million 400,000 firefighters out there waiting to be sent into a flood zone with or without the proper PPE. I can’t even calculate how many law enforcement personnel and SAR volunteers find themselves in situations involving swift water that exceed their skill levels.
So much more needs to be done. FEMA continues to waffle about how to integrate swiftwater rescue into their US&R Task Force model. And although the Coast Guard is now the lead agency for federal flood rescue operations, USCG personnel in general are not provided with swiftwater rescue training specifically and this worries me a lot. I’m proud of the progress that has been made in the National Park Service, but again, swiftwater rescue needs to be standardized throughout the United States National Park system. The US military has secured some flood awareness training, but not nearly enough. Soldiers who are deployed during flooding events remain at risk.
It’s not just about adding swiftwater rescue to the National Park Service, Coast Guard training, local SAR and FEMA teams that counts – although it is absolutely vital for the protection of personnel in the field during the annual snow melt, as well as during hurricane and other major flood responses. What we REALLY need from FEMA and other federal and state agencies is the kind of leadership that speaks in a loud, clear voice: A victim’s chances of survival should not depend on where he or she gets swept away. Swiftwater rescue training needs to become part of every technical rescue team’s tool box.
Thanks to our pioneering swiftwater rescue program in Los Angeles, victims who find themselves at the mercy of powerful floodwaters now have a fighting chance to survive. And our visionary swiftwater and flood rescue program – which the State of California adopted and has continued to develop and improve upon – is being replicated and adapted to the needs of communities worldwide.
But over the past two months, we have lost four rescuers in incidents involving swift water, one of whom was swept away during Hurricane Irene. I don’t yet know the level of swiftwater rescue training that each had, or what all the circumstances were, but to lose four rescuers in two months is not only devastating, it’s a reminder about how swiftwater rescue truly is one of the most dangerous of all technical rescue operations – not to be entered into lightly, with too little training, or using equipment that may not be up to the industry standards…
Today is the anniversary of 9/11, when nearly 3000 lives ended. We know their names, which are prominently featured at the Pentagon, in Pennsylvania, and at the new 9/11 museum. We’ve seen their photos and heard their families tell their stories over and over again.
But who died in Hurricane Katrina? There isn’t even an exact death toll and likely never will be. We know that more than 1800 souls were swept to their deaths in that tragedy, but where are their stories, where are their names, who are they, how are their families doing in the aftermath?
And what about the average of 2500-3000 lives lost every year to drowning? This silent epidemic kills as many people annually as were lost on 9/11. Where are their names and who is telling their stories?
I am the last person who would ever begrudge the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 any honor their loved ones have received and will continue to receive. But in the same way that we need to reduce the threat of future terrorist attacks, we also need to reduce this terrible, yearly death toll in the water.
Christopher Wieting was 4. Robert Johnson was 8. Edward Wieting was 27. All three were swept down the Pacoima Wash. Jason Bastain was 7. When he fell into the wash, LAPD Officer Mike Grasso and an unidentified 20-year attempted to rescue him. The force of the floodwaters immediately overwhelmed them all. 17 people were swept down the Pacoima Wash that spring. In January, Mark Zarbis and Jose Nunez took a wild ride on a 46,000-pound, fully loaded cement truck that was hurtled down the Los Angeles River like a child’s toy. During the 1997-98 winter storm season, when El Nino conditions spawned torrential downpours, on one particularly rainy night in January, there were 32 calls for swiftwater rescue in Santa Clarita alone. In March 1998, 13-year old Megan Cole tried to grab her 14-year old friend, Jennifer Simpson, when Jennifer fell into Bull Creek. Both girls were at the mercy of the torrent for more than five miles. On April 17, 2000, 14-year old Abel Flores and 15-year old Daniel Rivera were swept down Little Dalton Wash towards certain death.
Every one of these individuals was rescued by swiftwater rescue teams. Although there are still occasional fatalities, not a single death in Los Angeles has been compounded by the lack of swiftwater rescue training and equipment.
Swiftwater rescue saves lives.
Written on September 11, 2009