SC rescue teams training on water rescue quickly put skills to use, rescue man on lake

Greenville County Emergency Management first responders finished training for a water rescue only to immediately use those skills in a real-life situation

Lyn Riddle
The State (Columbia, S.C.)

GREER, S.C. — The water had been choppy all day with the wind gusting across shimmering Lake Robinson, north of Greer.

Rescue team members with Greenville County Emergency Management had battled it all day Sunday as they finished the last of a three-day course on water movement and boat maneuvering.

Tired yet accomplished, they pulled boats out of the water and assembled their gear on the boat ramp.

A man ambled by.

"There's a man having trouble with his boat over there," he said, pointing toward the dam.

A catamaran lay on its side. They didn't know it at the time, but also in the water was a man struggling to hold onto the boat and the cable across the spillway entrance. The wind and the flow of the water threatened to send him over the edge. It was a 25-foot drop from there into the South Tyger River.

The lake

Lake Robinson is Greenville County's largest lake at 800 acres, tiny by comparison to the Midlands' Lake Murray, which has coves bigger than that. But some say Robinson offers the prettiest views in Greenville County. The Blue Ridge escarpment rises majestically miles in the distance with landmarks such as Caesars Head and Hogback Mountain.

The shoreline is protected, hiding the 300 or so lakefront homes from view. Boat motors are limited to 10 mph, ensuring a measure of tranquility.

The 12 first responders at the lake on that Sunday, Nov. 1, work at several Greenville County agencies: fire departments at Berea, Donaldson Center, South Greenville and Greenville City, Greenville County Sheriff's Office and Greenville County EMS.

Some 250 people from 36 agencies volunteer for rescue, dive and HAZMAT teams in the county, said Rick Mullinax, special operations coordinator for Greenville County Emergency Response. Their agencies pay them and allow them to be part of the emergency teams. They train every month for complicated and sometimes dangerous rescues. It's community helping the community.

On Sunday, one of the skills the responders learned was a boat maneuver to rescue someone in the water. It's a matter of steering the boat to the right place for rescuers to reach the victim. Once they grab the victim under the arms — most are not wearing life vests — the boat driver throttles up, the rear of the boat dips down to water level, and the rescuers pull the victim in and over themselves.

It's about timing, working together.

The rescue

When the men on the bank saw the toppled boat, they quickly relaunched a 16-foot Sea Ark, and four guys jumped in: Justin Church, 33, Berea Fire Department; Josh Yale, 33, Greenville City Fire Department; Russ Beam, 30, Greenville County EMS; and Robert Trusty, 35, Berea Fire Department.

They all have a dozen or more years experience.

About a quarter of the way to the site, they saw a man, older than middle age, desperately trying to hold onto his boat, a catamaran, perhaps 20 feet long. The man did not appear to know it, but he was in serious trouble, Church sad

The man tried to get his leg onto the pontoon to right the boat. Every time he did, the wind blew it down.

Church and Beam got in place to grab the man. Trusty, the bowman, gave direction to Yale, the driver. Yale, as it turned out, was the only one of the four who could see how close they were to the edge. He was looking straight down the opening between the sides of the dam to the spillway.

Head down, focused. The lives of everyone on that vessel were in Yale's hands. Trusty called the moves. Yale executed. He had to ease into position without creating wake that would further jeopardize the victim. He also had to stay away from the safety cable.

They were in wet suits and could have jumped in the cold water if need be. It also did not escape their notice that any malfunction with their own boat would send them all over the edge.

The other first responders in the class were on top of the dam with throw bags, which had a 75-foot rope inside they could have thrown to the man if the rescue failed.

"Let go of the boat," Beam yelled. "We have you."

The man tried to get his leg onto the craft.

"You can't climb onto the boat," Beam said. "Calm down. We're here to help you."

As soon as the man put his leg into the water, Beam and Church grabbed him. Trusty said, "Go!" and Yale went to full throttle. Just as they practiced earlier. The man flopped into the rescue craft.

Six minutes, from launch to rescue.

The aftermath

They took the man to the shore. He declined medical attention, only concerned about the catamaran. The rescuers went back to try to unhook the boat from the safety cable. They freed the boat and slipped a rope into the top of the mast.

"Every time we pulled, the wind pulled us back toward the spillway," Church said.

Firefighters are taught to protect life first, then property and stabilize an incident, weighing risk versus reward. The risks were too great to continue.

They watched the boat slip over the edge.

Park Warden Mike Parris said the man, who he did not want to identify, said the boat landed upright and was not damaged. The man tied it up on Sunday so it wouldn't float down the South Tyger River and put it on his trailer the next day.

Parris has been the Lake Robinson warden for seven years, was a highway patrolman and firefighter in Greenville County for 35 years before that, and said he has never once heard of anyone or anything going over the spillway.

Church can't get over the happenstance of it all. They had been at the lake all day. Five minutes later and they would have been gone. They had just been practicing that particular maneuver.

"There is a greater power that put us in the right place at the right time," he said.


(c)2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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