Posted by: njrigg | March 18, 2010

Swiftwater Rescue Teams Protect Rescue Personnel and Give Flood Victims a Fighting Chance to Survive

Swiftwater Rescue Teams Protect Rescue Personnel

and Give Flood 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.

Earl Higgins

Earl Higgins, 29, lost his life attempting to rescue a child in the LA River, 1980

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 in the Los Angeles Harbor.

How did Jimmy manage to eddy out of the river, when Earl could not? Where along the 30-mile stretch of river from Griffith Park to Long Beach did Earl succumb to the relentless power of the torrent? And why, why weren’t rescuers able to save him? 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 these questions, which smoldered in the deepest part of my soul, springing to full fury every time there were news reports of someone else succumbing to churning floodwaters.

In the early 1980s, when we endured several successive years of flooding, I counted the dead, wincing when the numbers climbed to more than a dozen one year and 16-18 the next. 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. “The rains will come again,” I wrote with a renewed sense of urgency in December of 1991. “How many more lives will be lost?” In February 1992, the rains did come again. A series of powerful storms pummeled the Southland, wreaking havoc from Ventura County to San Diego killing nearly a dozen people.

Adam Bischoff

Adam Bischoff, 15, lost his life in the LA River, February 1992

The death of one young man was especially painful, coming just a few days before the 12th anniversary of Earl Higgin’s death. 15-year old Adam Bischoff, who had grown up during the blistering drought of the late 1980s, was mesmerized by floodwaters churning through an arroyo near his home. Like other children before him, Adam was drawn to the edge of the channel. And like other children before him, somehow Adam slipped into the torrent and was helplessly swept for miles downstream past rescuers who 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 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. On average, 20-30,000 victims perish in floods, with an estimated 3-500 deaths annually in the United States. 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, these numbers are the result of my own efforts to track the statistics. 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.

Los Angeles County swiftwater rescue

Los Angeles County swiftwater rescue teams pre-deploy in advance of storms

In 1992 no one realized what a landmark our “swiftwater rescue revolution” in Los Angeles would represent. Since 1992, Los Angeles has developed the most comprehensive multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional swiftwater rescue and flood safety education program in the world. Under the leadership of the Los Angeles Multi-Agency Swiftwater Rescue Committee, with representatives from 18 fire-rescue, law enforcement, and other government agencies serving on it, more than 7,500 local fire-rescue, law enforcement, and lifeguard personnel have received swiftwater rescue training. Several hundred swiftwater rescuers who have advanced training serve on more than a dozen ground-based and helicopter swiftwater rescue teams that are pre-deployed to key locations throughout the county during times of high flooding risk.

We average more than 100 swiftwater rescue calls per year when the rains come. Even with the widespread use of the flood safety education video, “No Way Out”, which features the cautionary tale of Adam Bischoff’s death, children still manage to get swept away, and motorists, who are unwary of the dangers posed by flooded streets and low water crossings, end up getting stranded in quickly rising floodwaters. But thanks to the dedication of swiftwater rescuers throughout Los Angeles County, there are now more happy endings than sad ones.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Air Rescue 5

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Air Rescue 5, swiftwater rescue drill

Christopher Wieting was 4. Robert Johnson was 8. Edward Wieting was 27. All three were swept down the Pacoima Wash in March 1995. Jason Bastain was 7. When he fell into the wash in April 1995, 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 1997, 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 helplessly traveled more than five miles downstream. On April 17, 2000, 14-year old Abel Flores and 15-year old Daniel Rivera were swept down Little Dalton Wash towards certain death.

But unlike Adam Bischoff, Earl Higgins, and countless earlier victims, all of these victims were rescued by local swiftwater rescue teams. Although there are still occasional fatalities when floodwaters rise, in recent years, not a single death has been compounded by the lack of swiftwater rescue training and equipment.

Thanks to our pioneering swiftwater rescue program, 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 is being replicated, improved upon, and adapted to the needs of communities worldwide.

But more needs to be done.  The chances of survival should not depend on where a victim gets swept away.  Swiftwater rescue training needs to become part of every technical rescue team’s tool box.  Starting now.

– Bio –

Writer and documentary filmmaker Nancy Rigg produced the flood safety education videos, “No Way Out” and “Danger! Debris Flow”, in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Office of Education and Department of Public Works. In February 2000, she appeared before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee investigating ways to reduce the death toll in floods nationwide.

In a recent interview, James Ventrillo, who was just 10-years old when he got swept downstream in 1980, credited Earl Higgins with helping him eddy out of the Los Angeles River.  Sadly, Higgins was then caught in the fast current and swept to his death.

Earl Higgins, Nancy Rigg

Earl Higgins and Nancy Rigg, 1978… in remembrance.


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