Rescue at Peeks Creek: Hurrican Ivan
David Pease, Carolina Fire/Rescue/EMS Journal
I wrote in the winter issue that I would tell the story of the rescue up at Peeks Creek in Macon County, North Carolina. Well, here is the Readers Digest version of that rescue.
We had just returned from our deployment in Morganton, for hurricane Frances, when word was coming down the pipes that hurricane Ivan may also target North Carolina. Hurricane Frances left us having to regroup and repair for any future deployments. Tires needed replacing, trailers needed to be repaired, and supplies needed to be restocked. Our week was already cut out for us.
A few days later Mike Guzo with North Carolina Emergency Management contacted me and placed us on alert status. Our repairs and restocking had to be accomplished in double time. It looked as though we might be heading back to the mountains in the very near future. Frances had us responding after the hurricane was in full swing, this time we would be going up ahead of the storm. I received a call from Mike on Wednesday night advising me we would be deploying the following day. I asked where we might be going this time, and I believe his words were “we are putting you in the hot zone”, and how very true those words came to be. He called the next day and activated the Team to deploy. We began making contact with our members and by 1400hrs we were enroute to the Western Branch EOC for check in and then on to Franklin.
We stopped at the EOC in Hickory and then made our way to Franklin. We were advised to check in with the Emergency Management Director there in town. We rolled into town with a convoy of trucks and trailers. We met the EM Director who was expecting a swiftwater team of four and a boat. As he looked out front, to his surprise, we took up almost two city blocks with vehicles and equipment. After briefing us on the area and how we might be utilized, we rolled down the street and gassed our trucks. We were then off to the local Hampton Inn, where he was arranging for our increased accommodations. I assigned everyone their rooms and we set up to meet in the motels conference room.
It was obvious that we were going to have to split our Team up for the response they wanted. We made the assignments and then began our preparation. It was around 2200hrs when Team 1 left for the Nantahala Community. They were concerned that the roads through the national forest may become impassable. As Team 1 proceeded toward their objective, they were diverted to help EMS evacuate a woman whose house was surrounded by water. Captain Medlin assessed the situation and then walked the woman down her driveway to the awaiting paramedics. Soon they were again headed toward the Nantahala Community. It was soon discovered that trees would make the trip impossible.
During this time, our Team, Team 2, was advised that a tornado had touched down in an area called Peeks Creek and there were injured people that needed to be evacuated for treatment. We were told to meet up with a fire unit and a National Guard deuce and a half. I am not even sure what department our escort was with, but we headed out with two trucks, one pulling our boat trailer. We arrived at what was now the end of the road, which was now blocked by trees and a raging creek. Myself and Assistant Chief Stuart Ferrell got out, made an assessment and realized there was no way to put boats in the water. Stuart also noticed that the fire department and National Guard were on the other side of the creek. We turned around, a task all in itself, and stopped at the first bridge crossing. I got out and surveyed the bridge and creek. We determined that this was not going to be a safe place to cross. We were taken to another crossing that went through a trailer & RV park. There was standing water on the other side of the bridge, we were just not sure how deep it was. Ben, in the other truck, led the way and we crossed the bridge and water without incident. We made our way up to the location of the fire department and parked. We were advised by several of the guardsmen and firefighters that there were victims up the mountain and they were not sure who had been accounted for. As we proceeded up the road, we saw a rope across the creek and could see several flashlights around a collapsed house. We were told there was a woman trapped inside and they were going to need help to get her out. They did not have a radio so one of the firefighters on our side thru a handheld across to them. We also sent a porta-power across the creek on the line that was rigged. We assessed the line over the creek and determined that it would have to be reworked and additional lines run before we could send anyone across on it. There was discussion that the line may have to be used to evacuate anyone on the other side.
We never got any communications from the medics at the house and were told that our other Team had to divert and was heading to Peeks Creek to assist us. We were also told by the Fire Chief of the CullaSaga Gorge Fire Department that we might be trapped on this side of the creek. We soon had plans in place to fix and use the line across the creek. In the meantime, we noticed the National Guard and fire truck had left. We decided to proceed up the mountain to check out several more houses that may have been damaged. We searched one that had a tree through the roof, but luckily found no one at home. We found two elderly ladies still in a house that was not damaged, but was without power. One of the ladies was on oxygen and asked if I could switch out her tank. I adhered to her request, and asked if they wanted to be evacuated. They thanked us, and told us they would be fine. We headed back to our original location. We noticed on the way back that nothing looked like a tornado had struck. We could see where water had been at least 30ft above the current creek level. Having seen and responded to tornado damage, nothing seemed to fit that scenario. We soon got word from Team 1 that several people needed to be evacuated down the mountain and one was trapped. The Fire Chief had left to clear a path out to the otherside. We decided we were going to cross the creek one way or another. We loaded up, turned around, again not an easy task, and headed back toward the bridge. We came upon the Chief cutting up a large tree that was across the road. We assisted in moving a section that would allow us to pass and proceeded forward. We came to another tree across the road, this one smaller, and again assisted in getting enough out of the way to pass. During this time Team 1 called on the radio and requested our status and situation. They then called back and tried to describe what type of entrapment they had. All I can say is, I could not even imagine what they were telling me. We got to the bridge, prayed the water had not gotten any deeper, and across we went.
Team 1 had arrived and met with the CullaSaga Gorge Fire Department for briefing. They were advised that Team 2 may be trapped on the other side of the creek and may not be able to get across to help. They contacted us by radio and we advised we would get across one way or another. As they approached the scene, Captain Luke Steele, Captain Bo Medlin, Captain Brian Smith, Lieutenant Chuck Webb and Specialist Brain Williams were preparing to climb and transverse the mountain. This proved to be quite a feat for a Team of flatlanders. Webb and Williams were asked to grab the second stokes basket and follow the group. Once they retrieved the basket, they realized the group had already gone. They began their climb, not exactly sure where they were headed. After stopping several times, they attempted radio contact, but to no avail. They looked for lights and listened for voices, and soon spotted a glimmer of light across the valley. They headed in that direction and came to the base of a hill where Captain Smith was. They were advised there was an injured female, who was 5 ½ months pregnant, a 2 year old child with cuts and bruises, and a male with a broken leg. Captain Steel worked with the local firefighters and law enforcement officers to evacuate the injured female and child. They were advised that paramedics were with a woman that was trapped in her collapsed house and she would probably not make it through the night. Captain Medlin, left to assess the situation. He was soon joined by Lieutenant Webb and Specialist Brian Williams. After Captain Steele and Smith finished assisting with the two evacuations, they headed to the entrapment. They arrived to find the paramedics talking with the victim and feeling totally hopeless. They had made what might have been the toughest decision of their lives, to stay with her until she died in the rubble pile. As Team 1 arrived and assessed the situation, a glimmer of hope came over them, there might now be a chance.
Their assessment showed a woman in her twenties, her right leg at a 90 degree angle from her torso, wedge ever so tightly in plywood, logs, and other debris from the house. Her left leg went straight down onto the pile with a tree transversing between her legs. That tree was also under tension from a larger 2ft diameter tree that protruded horizontally up the hill directly above the victim. Directly above her was a Volvo resting on two trees. This was a scene that was very hard to describe. Chuck continued his assessment of the victim and was asked by her, “Are you going to get me out of here?” He introduced himself and Brain and let her know that, “yes we are here to help get you out.” Further investigation found a child located just under her leg and she advised him that was her three year old son. Chuck also noticed some limbs folded under the victims left leg and she told him that was her mother-in-law. During their conversation she let him know her husband was a fireman and that the other fireman had tried everything to get her out and felt they had let their fellow fireman down. She told Chuck this as she rubbed the head of her dead son. Team 1 continued their evaluation and decided that stabilization was their first mission at hand.
The paramedics had attempted multiple IV starts without success and had become somewhat discouraged. Brian encouraged the medics to try a few more times, even offering to try himself, having been an EMT Intermediate several years back. The paramedics decided to give it another shot and successfully got an IV started. Team 1 sent the firefighters and Law Enforcement officers to look for anything that could be used for stabilizing the car and trees. They came back with an assortment of tools and chains, one being a cable come-along. The job of trying to secure the vehicle began. While Captains Steele and Medlin were working on stabilizing and securing the car, Chuck and Brian were trying to remove rubble from around the victim. Chuck even used the come-along to try and remove a bed slat that was wedged beside the victim. The slat didn’t move.
We, Team 2, finally arrived at the area where the vehicles were parked. I called on the radio and asked if any additional equipment was needed. I was asked to bring up another rigging pack. Ben asked me about going back to the motel and getting the extrication trailer. I told him that would be a good idea. Something had told me earlier to bring the extrication trailer this time, as I think the good Lord was looking after us. Assistant Chief Ferrell decided to stay with the truck for logistics and wait for Ben to get back. I grabbed the rigging pack and member Jeff Schneider, and we began to climb the wet and slippery mountain. We ran into the same problem Chuck and Brian had experienced, no signs of anyone and not sure which way to go. The smell of LP gas was strong all along the mountain, and climbing was difficult in the mud. We stopped multiple times to look and listen, and finally saw a group across in the valley carrying a victim out in a basket. We headed their direction and found ourselves at the foot of a hill approximately 30ft high. The climb was tough, grabbing every root and weed I could get my hands on. We got to the top and asked several folks coming our way where the trapped woman was located. They appeared somewhat dazed and said they were not sure. We decided to head the direction they came from and soon found the collapsed house.
As we got closer to the house, Captain Smith met us and led us into the rescue scene. It was pouring rain and in the dim light from the flashlights we could see the pile of debris that use to be a home. It looked as though several bulldozers had cleared the house into one big pile of rubble. I climbed tediously over the wet pile of rubble, with nails, jagged metal, boards and other debris everywhere, wearing a wetsuit and booties. You see, we were prepared to do swiftwater rescues. Team 1 asked me to assess the situation and I moved around to the side Brian Williams was on. Her right leg was tightly pinned at a 90 degree angle with another tree between them both. There was also a tree above her head along with a Volvo. Another large tree was under the rear wheels of the car. I could smell LP gas and Brian informed me there was a leaking tank under the pile. I then noticed Chuck on the other side with the limbs of a body just below him. He gave me the look that needs to words, and I knew at once it was a deceased family member. I then moved to the other side and was going to assess her other leg. As I knelt down beside her, I had to move a blanket they had placed on her for warmth. As I moved the blanket to get a closer look, I saw a small foot underneath. No one had prepared me for this as I was not aware of her 3 year old son. The knot in my gut soon made its way to my throat, as I carefully placed the blanket back as if I had not noticed the small delicate foot. To my surprise, she was looking straight at me and advised me that “that is my three year old son, I am sitting on top of him, and I know he is dead. That is my mother-in-law down there, and I know she is also dead.” That knot became a tear, but unnoticeable from the rain drops already running down my face. I looked in her eyes and told her, “we are going to get all of you out of here.”
In the meantime they were working hard on securing the car to the heavy trees and things were soon as secure as they could be. As I consulted with Captain Steele, Chuck and Brian continued to try and remove debris from around her. I asked Luke to figure out a way to move the car, in case it came to that. I them moved around to work with Brian on freeing her right leg. We worked in shifts, since the space was only big enough for one at a time. My mind was continuously thinking on ways to get her out. Luke and Bo had requested air bags from the fire department and a chainsaw. They were going to try and relieve the pressure on her legs by cutting and raising one of the trees she was resting on. Brian and myself continued to remove small pieces of debris, but not enough to come close to freeing her leg. I would watch her ever so lovingly caress her son’s head, and feel the tears build inside. I realized that our extrication trailer was probably here by now and called to Captain Smith, who was working scene logistics, to get me the PowerHawk rescue tool. He relayed the request down to Stuart and Ben, who made arrangements to get the equipment up the mountain.
A doctor had showed up to assist with any major medical needs. The patient was given morphine for pain and he mentioned possible amputation of her right leg. He assessed her several times and we continued to work to get her free. During one of my trips in the “hole” she asked if we were going to get her out and also advised me she was 7 ½ months pregnant, and she knew she had lost the baby. I stepped out of the hole to let Brian have his turn and wiped the “rain” from my face. The rain had continued to fall but was beginning to lighten up a bit. It was a blessing in itself, as it served to keep the LP gas in the bottom of the pile. Soon they brought me the Powerhawk rescue tool and rams. Once all the system was together, I connected everything and moved back into the “hole” I placed the two rams just above her leg and against the debris. I then assessed what would be moved and what the consequences might be. I slowly spread and set the first ram and then the second. After working for a minute to remove a few more pieces of debris, her leg was free almost to the hip. By this time Luke and Bo’s group had cut and lifted the tree with the airbags enough to get a few more inches of freedom. We were now ever so close to getting her out.
Chuck worked under her left leg to remove all that was holding it and we decided it was time to see if we could remove her. Since there was not a good way to get hold of her, I suggested using a webbing strap under her arms. This was put into place, and everyone was ready to pull her out. They tried several times to lift her, but her left leg was still wrapped under her mother-in-laws legs. The decision was then made to remove the mother-in-law first, then pull her out. They covered her with a tarp to block her view, wrapped a webbing sling around her mother-in-law and removed her. We then readied ourselves again to remove our victim. I climbed in the hole and Brian moved around to assist Chuck, Luke and Bo. When the command was given, they lifted on the webbing and I worked her right leg in the debris. She was lifted from the grip of terror and placed in a stokes litter to for packaging. In the meantime, Brian had to grab her three year old son before he plummeted to the bottom of the pile. I watched him carefully lift her son out and hand him to an awaiting pair of arms as the tear crept slowly down his cheek. It was now 0730hrs and daylight had broken.
I think her son was carried down the mountain by their pastor, cradling his lifeless body the entire time. She was packaged in the basket and the task of getting her down the mountain was about to begin. They also packaged her mother-in-law in a basket to be brought down as well. We were so exhausted that the evacuation of the patients and bodies was handled by the local firefighters and law enforcement officers. The male patient that had sustained a broken leg was still at the house on the ridge, and also still had to be lowered down the mountain. Within about thirty minutes everyone had been taken down the mountain. Our patient was on the way to the hospital and we were working at getting our equipment down the mountain. After our exhausted Team reached our vehicles we were told the male patient still needed to be transported and there were no ambulances available right now. They asked if we could transport the patient in our operations truck. Captain Smith assisted them and drove to the hospital. We gathered our equipment, placed it on the back of one of the Sheriff’s departments vehicles and were off to the CullaSaga Gorge Fire Department to get things cleaned up. We were assisted by the Charlotte Fire Department and CullaSaga Gorge firefighters, who graciously washed and cleaned most of our gear.
As we headed back to the Hampton Inn, totally exhausted, I came to realize a few things. This remarkable woman had remained not only conscious, but relatively calm during this entire ordeal. She had just lost her three year old son, mother-in-law, and her unborn son in the blink of an eye. There lifeless bodies laid there with her, but their spirits kept her and us going. The thoughts of our own families and those of our fellow rescue workers pushed us on to accomplish what we needed to accomplish. I came to realize that the saying “There is no I in team” was ever so true. I could not have asked for a group of folks to have worked any better together to get a most gruesome task done. They responded and performed flawlessly in the most tedious of times. The rescue was a tragedy and a triumph all in one. The rescue of Christy, and the assistance of all the firefighters and law enforcement officers will forever touch our lives, and never be forgotten.
David has over 27 years experience in the EMS and Rescue field. He is a NC certified ERT Instructor, confined space specialist Instructor, trench rescue specialist Instructor, Rope specialist Instructor, former NC Paramedic and Paramedic Instructor, NC Certified Law Enforcement Instructor, CPR Coordinator and Instructor for Wake Technical Community College, certified diver, teaches with over 7 community colleges, and is Chief of the Reds Team, a technical rescue operations team providing response and training to other agencies and industry. David also writes for Advanced Rescue Technologies magazine. David can be emailed at Reds100@aol.com or visit their website at www.RedsTeam.com.