The following is from my memoir Someone’s Hero.
The first time I remember someone saving my life was Monday, September 1, 1975, one month after starting as a career firefighter.
Ohio had been getting more than its fair share of rain for days and the swollen rivers and streams had lured people to “ride the rapids”. The result was plenty of newspaper pictures and TV news video footage showing overturned kayaks, canoes, and rafts in raging waters where people had lost their lives.
I remember seeing a video where firefighters in a rowboat, attempted to recover dead bodies in a river while the water was still high and flowing. While standing in the boat and trying to hook a body with a pike pole, the firefighter lost his balance, fell overboard and drowned. The lesson was immediate. Never risk your life to recover a body.
I also saw a video where good intentioned firefighters in a boat got too close to the face of a low-head dam. The water pulled the boat to the dam face and the water cascading over the dam capsized the boat, throwing the firefighters to their deaths.
One of the most dangerous man-made structures to have in a river is a low-head dam. Known as drowning machines, water plunging over the relatively small dam causes a rotating underwater current that catches objects on the downstream side of the dam’s face. If the object is really buoyant, it stays glued close to the dam, bouncing on the surface of the roiling water until water currents subside or it gets knocked out of the powerful hydraulic force by a log or other debris careening downstream. If the captured object is not so buoyant (like a person) it is churned down under the water, back up to the surface, then down again in a continuous loop until it’s ensnarled in underwater debris and held or it’s pushed to the river bottom to escape the dam’s hydraulic force and ejected downstream.
Willoughby’s low head dam used to be part of a water treatment facility located on the Chagrin River at Daniel’s Park. During the periods of low river levels, the dam is docile. Fishermen can walk across the top of it or wade in the water on the downstream side and fish without danger. During periods of high water flow however, the dam can, and does, catch the unwary in its grasp. September 1, 1975 was the first time I got to personally experience the danger and power of water near a low-head dam first hand.
Shortly before 2:30 p.m., three young men in a rubber raft were racing downstream on the rain-swollen Chagrin River when the dam caught their raft in its hydraulic grasp, abruptly dumping all three overboard. Two of the men, a 24 year-old and an 18 year-old, were lucky enough to be thrown clear of the dam face. Two very brave women on shore saw what had happened, launched a canoe downstream, and plucked the two men from the river before we arrived on scene.
The third man, a 26 year-old, wasn’t as lucky. He had also been thrown out of the raft but had become tangled in its ropes and now clung to its buoyancy as the river’s strong current relentlessly tried to drown him. Logs and other debris already caught in the churning waters at the dam face kept striking the helpless victim, tearing off most of his clothing, exposing him to the additional danger of hypothermia. Unless somebody did something soon, the man’s death was inevitable.
We arrived on scene and rapidly assessed the situation to determine a relatively safe course of action. After watching the attempts of other departments in similar situations, we knew the dangers. At least we thought we did. Lt. Kim Stafford ordered our 100 ft. aerial to be brought to the scene. The goal was to extend the ladder out far enough so we could pick the man up out of the water with a rope. The aerial arrived within minutes, we set it up and we fully extended the ladder horizontally over the water.
It wasn’t long enough.
We tried throwing ropes from shore but the combination of distance and current kept us from reaching our target.
Nothing so far was working and I knew the man wouldn’t survive much longer, so I came up with another idea. I knew that during low water conditions I could easily walk across the top of the concrete dam so I figured I might be able to stand against the current now and walk across to rescue our victim. After all, I thought, it was only water. So, while others continued trying other rescue methods, I grabbed a 100 foot length of ¾” manila rope and tied a running bowline knot around my torso. I figured someone could lower me down into the water and I would simply walk across the top of the dam to the victim. If I slipped, they could pull me back up with the rope. I didn’t want to slip through the rope so I reasoned a running bowline would cinch up around me to prevent that from happening.
A firefighter with neighboring city Willoughby Hills by the name of Dave Moore, happened to be in the area and had stopped to help. He saw what I was about to do and offered to hold the rope while I made the rescue attempt. He signaled he was ready, I took off my shoes, then he lowered me down the steep muddy embankment toward the raging water below.
I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as my feet were in the water up to my ankles,. The river pulled me in so hard that it sucked the socks off both of my feet. The running bowline I had tied to protect me from slipping through the loop of rope immediately cinched up tight around my chest and squeezed the breath out of me.
“Pull me the fuck back up!” I yelled, very unprofessionally for all the bystanders to hear.
Instead of being an invincible hero, I had suddenly become a foul-mouthed liability.
After I was back on dry land and safe, I started wondering how Dave had been able to hold on to the rope with me at the end being pulled under the water with the strength of at least a dozen men. It turned out that he had a much better appreciation for the force of moving water than I did. Although he wouldn’t interfere with another department’s operation by outright objecting to my foolhardy (stupid) plan, Dave knew that he couldn’t possibly stop me from being pulled under the water with his strength alone. He had had the presence of mind to wrap the rope around a nearby concrete post to get a mechanical advantage. That single act had kept me from becoming another firefighter death statistic.
After more unsuccessful rescue attempts, we were finally able to throw a buoyant life ring attached to a rope out to the victim who was now weak, suffering from hypothermia, and barely conscious. Somehow, he managed to not only grasp the ring but also hold on to it as we pulled raft and all through the raging water across the face of the dam to the shore.
We pulled him free of the tangled rope, covered him in blankets, and carried him to our rescue squad (ambulance). The squad then transported him to Lake County West hospital where he was treated for hypothermia, cuts and bruises, and later released. It had been a narrow escape and a happy ending for both the victim and yours truly.
Though he wouldn’t be the last, Dave Moore was the first person to save my life when I got in trouble while performing my duties as a firefighter and paramedic. Like most of the firefighters I’ve had the honor to know and work with during my career, he viewed his life-saving actions that day as routine.