We were enroute to the river for a drill when a deputy passed us with full lights and sirens, motioning us to follow. In the last decade this was our third actual call during a monthly drill. So the first lesson learned, ride in the dive vehicle to drills.
Apparently four children and a baby sitter attempted to cross a cove off the river that was filled with water chestnuts. For those of you that do not have these lovely plants, the seeds are similar in size and shape to those metal star shaped things that are thrown as weapons in martial arts (nope, I'm no martial arts expert). The plant stems are strong and entangle you very quickly to the point of not being able to move. It is the worst plant I have ever had to deal with in the water. The seed points go right through 1/4 inch neoprene gloves. The Viking suits kept them out.
Enroute to the scene in a patrol boat, we were told that the victims were possibly still in the drowning stage - not dead yet. I was surprised and grateful that the patrol boat made it through the very shallow water and thick water chestnut field. It was done very slowly with a depth finder. Lesson learned. Haste is slow, slow is fast.
When we got to the site a few fire fighters were walking in the water. Apparently a man and his young son had heard screaming and he saw two children drowning. He entered the water and realized he could not get through the plants. (A bystander who actually kept a good head on his shoulders! - he really deserves a medal for not risking his life and that of his son's). He dragged his john boat into the water and pulled out a young boy and a girl. They pointed out the babysitter who was submerged just blow the surface. He got her into the boat. EMS was working on her on the shore when we got there. Someone went to interview the witness and we started a walking search with rescue bag line from the boat in the area based on what we were told the witness said. The two surviving children stated that their brother and sister had been with them.
There were areas of weeds, and two channels without weeds that were too deep to walk in. With the walking search underway, we got a land search going along the narrow path through thick vegetation. It was worth checking to see if one or both children were hiding due to fear.
A deputy on the patrol boat handed out a good six or more PFD's making sure each person in the water had one. Lesson learned, make sure to have lots of PFD's, beyond what you need for your tenders. They weren't expensive ones. Actually I think a bunch were ones they found over time during patrolling. One deputy on the boat kept a continual head count of everyone in the water. He took that responsibility on his own. Personnel and personal safety first!
The divers arrived in two inflatables. We decided to use the patrol boat as the dive platform and finished dressing them there. I forgot now, but there were two things that needed minor repair that duct tape could easily have done the job, but there was no duct tape. Lesson learned - put duct tape on the patrol boat. With one diver down and a search started, we now re-interviewed the witness. When asked to re-enact what happened when he heard the screaming, the witness said "I was standing like here." The witness was asked to physically "show us" and the man went to a different place and faced a different location. Firefighters moved their search to that area and we started to move the divers to that location in the deeper section where walking could not be done. Lesson learned - statement analysis and "show me" re-enactment yet again prove their usefulness.
During the search a firefighter yelled out that he had found a shoe. We looked, and there he was in shoulder deep water, holding a shoe out in front of him high out of the water as far away from himself as possible. Attached to the shoe was a little leg. We were all yelling for him to get the head out of the water. He did not move. It was the first time I have witnessed that part of us that does not want to find the victim, particularly child victims. It is so strong that we completely miss the victim as we go over them. This firefighter did not want to know he found the child. The leg was right in front of his face and he did not see it. Lesson learned - make sure someone stays with such a person and make sure they go to the ensuing CISD.
The child was placed in the john boat. The deputy in the boat attempted mouth-to-mouth and after the child vomited he repeatedly called out for a pocket mask. Lesson learned - keep pocket masks on the patrol boat.
As was expected the second child was entangled in the weeds a few feet from the first child. A deputy attempted mouth-to-mouth and then stopped. I tried but the vomit just made me dry heave after each attempt and when I realized I was rinsing my mouth with dirty river water I realized how dangerous it was. It was a dilemma that I still think about.
From the time on scene to the time we were all exiting the water was 33 minutes. It was a really good teamwork effort within and between each of several responding agencies. Even though it was a rescue mode for children, everyone kept their cool, and no one did anything risky - except rinsing one's mouth with river water. Lesson learned.
The next lessons learned came during the ensuing debriefing with the CISD staff at a local firehouse. The firefighters of that house were really helpful, passing out sodas and ordering pizza, and generally being very supportive. A good thirty or more EMS, fire, and Sheriff personnel assembled. The staff did a really nice job of educating everyone on what critical incident stress is, signs and symptoms, what steps to take to prevent and deal with it. We then went over step-by-step what happened and what was done, and what was supposed to be done. We re-enforced that our first walking search that proved to be in the wrong location, was needed because it allowed us to secure that area. It was reinforced that everyone did a great job of taking care of each other. That those children could not have been recovered any faster, and that they were removed from the water horizontally and handled very gently. The emotion came out in during this part of the debriefing. I think it was helpful.
Please, share your learning experiences.
Stay safe always.
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