Old Bill’s Rescue Story
Note: I was a professional Firefighter for almost 30 years. I had many interesting experiences and stories from those days. Some of them were heartbreaking, some inspirational and some humorous. In the public safety field one can oftentimes develop a skewed sense of humor to cope with the tragedy that is prevalent in the profession. I hope you enjoy this story even if you find the humor a bit skewed. Of course the names are changed and dramatic license has been invoked to embellish the story a bit.
The moisture on the floor of the firehouse was creating miniature clouds of steam as the tiny air conditioner squalled in defiance of the heat. Firefighters in gym shorts and tee-shirts found no relief in their cramped quarters from the afternoon’s sizzle. Large glasses of sun tea were being downed as a form of compensation for the moisture our bodies were expelling. Energy levels were plummeting and grouchiness was in the air.
We were all starting to feel drowsy, when the alarm sounded. “ Pumper 4, with Med Unit 1, possible drowning at 5222 North 116th Street.” The break in the stillness of the day put our adrenaline on overdrive. Captain Black convulsed as though he had been struck by a bolt of lightning, rocked forward twice in his overstuffed chair and catapulted himself to his feet. Ray was already behind the wheel of the truck, giving us grief because we were moving so slow ! I wrote a address on the palm of my hand and climbed on the tailboard of the old truck.
Pumper 4 was out of service in the shop with a blown engine. It's replacement was an old county rig that the city had inherited when they annexed the township. An ugly hulk of a machine that jumped out of gear and into pump as you drove down the street. The front end shook so badly, of full stop was often required to control the beast ! It was a high profile rig, with no visibility from the rear. The only contact between me and the men in the cab was a button I could push if a problem occurred. The poor hulk was not built for power of speed, but had a great screaming siren. One of the old shrill, high pitched mechanical kind that starts out like a cat growling and builds to a nerve deafening crescendo. It sounded great. The embarrassment was we couldn’t keep up with the traffic. One elderly gentleman even passed us on a hill !
After ten minutes that seemed like an hour, we finally arrived on the scene. The water on the small lake was as smooth as glass and a small john boat had drifted back to the dock. A khaki fishing hat floating in a tiny circle in one corner of the pond. Ray and I jumped into the small craft with a long pole with a heavy metal hook on one end and a handle on the other called a pike pole, and paddled out to the empty had for further investigation. We could see nothing; yet there seemed to be a swirl to the water in this area. After poking around in the water for a few minutes a young man who identified himself as the victim’s Grandson arrived. He said that we were in the right spot and that his Grandpa got sick and fell out of the boat.
As is often the case in emergency situations, it didn’t take long for the spectators to gather. This crowd was mainly composed of neighbors and family.They identified the victim as Old Bill Johnson, a well liked farmer and friend. Bill had a history of cardiac problems and hadn’t been feeling well for the past week. We assumed he had a massive heart attack and fell out of the boat.
Dispatch had sent us a District Chief with a boat when the alarm sounded. The showed on the scene about fifteen minutes after we arrived. It’s frustrating when you can’t save a life, but unfortunately that is the cold reality of the situation. Old Bill had been in the warm water a long time before we got to him. Our main objective now was to recover his body.
District Chief Jerry Porch was a dazzling example of incompetence rising to the top. Over the years he was known for such exploits as getting his head caught between the fender well of the pumper while washing the rig, bagging his limit of meadowlark ( he thought they were quail) and showing up for duty in a neighboring cities fire station (he was lost). Ray and I just shook our heads when we saw him saunter out of the Chief’s car, glad that we were in the boat.
Chief Porch got a size up from Captain Black, and in his wisdom concluded that Ray and I should continue probing with the pike pole. Chief Porch remembered to bring the boat, but he forgot the grappling hooks that were used for snagging bodies. Jerry wasn’t a detail man. As we circled in the tiny craft bitching about how stupid Jerry was and the futility of this operation, Ray suddenly hit something solid with the long pike pole. The trouble was the awkwardness of the pole and the smallness of the boat didn’t allow much maneuverability. We had managed to nudge the body off the bottom but we couldn't get a grip on it with the poles dull hook.
In the midst of this frustration Ray and I noticed that Jerry had a fishing pole in his hand, as he drew back his arm to cast. I could not believe it ! “ Look at that silly son of a bitch.” “We’ve got the police, coroner, family, friends, and neighbors all gathered to retrieve Old Bill’s body and this moron is going to do a little fishing. What a great reflection of the fire service.”
After his third cast the Chief yelled out to us “ Next time you feel him let me know, I’m going to see if I can snag him.” Ray and I both went slack jawed at this one. Jerry was in his glory. As we continued to nudged the body from the murky bottom, Jerry fired one cast after another with the Zebco 33. The large treble hook and heavy lead sinker whizzed past our heads with uncomfortable closeness. Suddenly we saw Jerry’s rod double up on him and the exclamation from the dock. “ I got ‘em.”
Slowly Old Bill’s body emerged from the quiet warm water, a treble hook embedded firmly in the strap of his overalls. Ray and I hung tightly on the body floating along side the little boat, as the Chief reeled him all the way to the dock. Everyone was speechless at the scene, family and friends not knowing what to think and emergency personnel overwhelmed by Jerry’s unique style of underwater recovery’
After Old Bill was loaded into the ambulance and the crowd began to disappear, Jerry took time to reflect on his rescue with us. “Yea, he said “ I can generally bring ‘em in if I got a heavy enough rod. Why once when I was off duty I retrieved a body out of a trunk in Peterson Park Lake. The hard part was getting the lid open; snagging the body was a cinch.”
Who am I to question Jerry. After all he came through for Old Bill when he was stuff in a watery grave. Sometimes it seems resourcefulness and stupidity are on the same team and certain players are more creative.
Sean O'Reilly ()
This is a great post Dan! I love reading your work - It's so fun to get a chance to read about some of your history. :)