It was pitch black, foggy and first responders struggled to navigate shallow waters while they searched for five people who found themselves sinking in an inflatable raft on the Gasconade River near Highway 17.
At 8 p.m. Sept. 15, four personnel from the Fort Leonard Wood Fire Department assisted the Waynesville Rural Fire Protection District in responding to the 911 call. After receiving GPS coordinates and arriving on scene, the installation’s firefighters located Waynesville’s rescue crew, which was dealing with mechanical issues with three victims on board.
The victims were transferred to the FLWFD boat, and firefighter Greg Record, a certified rescue swimmer and resident of Licking, joined the Waynesville crew to evenly distribute weight.
The FLW rescue boat, manned by Fire Capt. Bryan West (who is also a certified rescue swimmer) and firefighter Kyle Johnson, then continued the search upstream.
“There were a couple times where we hit fog as we were coming down and it made the rescue boat’s lights just reflect back where it was hard to determine just how high the rocks were in the water,” West said.
“From a couple feet to a couple inches of water, to only having a split second then to decide left or right, slow or fast,” Johnson said, “it’s difficult.”
West said they located the two victims in chest-deep water and safely pulled them onto the boat.
On the way back, Johnson said, they lost radio contact with the communications center, which left Record and the Waynesville rescuers in the dark.
“The plan initially was they’d come back, tie off to us, and take us downstream,” Record said. “It was a mile and a half. We realized they were going to be tied up for a while, so we wanted to get back so if they did need more personnel, they’d at least have the personnel to help.
“So we just started paddling, a little harder with the paddles to dodge some of the trees, but we managed to get back downstream.”
Responders delivered all the victims to Ruby’s Landing Resort, where an ambulance waited to evaluate them. Every victim was released, officials said.
“It’s always good to help people,” said Ed Fowler, Waynesville Rural Fire Protection District incident commander. “That’s what we’re in the business for, regardless of whether you’re fire, law enforcement or EMS.”
West agreed, but remained humble.
“You’ve got to have a passion to do this job,” he said. “We’re all passionate about doing the job. Really, we just feel like we’re doing our jobs – no more, no less.”
“I was just doing what I was trained to do,” Johnson added.
Fowler, who was on Waynesville’s water rescue boat that night, commended the partnership between the two departments.
“We couldn’t do without it,” he said.
Johnson credited the rescue’s success to the two entities’ collaboration.
“Both of us together is what completed it,” he said. “Their efforts, our efforts – we’re a team.”
Despite the rescue’s complications, Fowler described the incident as not uncommon.
He said FLWFD assisted with multiple water rescue calls of the 10 similar ones his department has responded to this year alone.
Firefighters urged river-goers to educate themselves on the terrain, avoid being out past sundown, bring life preservers and to have a plan.