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story.lead_photo.caption Photo courtesy of firefighter-paramedic Brian Heffington Bella Vista firefighters work to rescue a man clinging to a tree near a flooded low-water bridge on Little Missouri Road in Pineville.

Chilly water was rushing past while a man strained to cling to a tree, holding out until emergency workers could rescue him.

Bella Vista firefighters went on a joint swift-water rescue operation with McDonald County emergency workers, the White Rock Fire Department and Freeman Ambulance Service last Wednesday, May 1.

Emergency workers rescued one person from the floodwaters, which completely covered a low-water bridge in Pineville, Mo., where Little Missouri Road meets Missouri Creek.

Gregg Sweeten said the swift-water rescue from last week turned out well, despite several odds against the team working to save a man's life.

Sweeten serves as McDonald County Emergency Management Agency director. He was one of the first on the scene, he said.

As emergency personnel arrived, they were able to access the location through nearby property. Neighbors in a house near the location were the ones who called 911, Sweeten said.

Sweeten said the man saved that Tuesday night had attempted to cross a road with rushing water and his truck was swept away. The man had been clinging to a tree for 45 minutes when emergency crews arrived on the scene. Sweeten said people caught in rough waters can get banged around a bit, similar to being hit continuously with a bat, he said. They can become weak as a result.

When rescuers arrived, the rushing water wasn't the worst component to consider. Dangerous conditions, such as numerous trees, precluded rescuers from launching the McDonald County Sheriff's Office water rescue boat.

Debris caught in a jet boat's engine would render the watercraft inoperable, he added.

White Rock Fire Department officials soon suggested contacting the Bella Vista Swift-Water Rescue team. When the first team member arrived, he suggested being tethered and going in after the man, since a boat couldn't be launched. Once the other members arrived, they agreed that was the best option, Sweeten said.

In emergency situations, responders have to react and respond to a changing climate.

"There are so many things that go through your mind," Sweeten said. "There are a ton of decisions you make to save someone's life."

Sweeten said he was extremely impressed by the swift-water rescue team's professionalism and quick response. Sweeten called Bella Vista Fire Chief Steve Sims the next day to express his appreciation for the mission they accomplished. "They were top-notch," Sweeten said.

Chief Sims said that the call came in at 12:18 a.m. May 1, and indicated up to four victims stuck in the floodwaters -- though, fortunately, there was only one.

Bella Vista units had difficulty reaching the low water bridge, he said, and had to turn around after attempting to drive up Little Missouri Road in one direction. They had to take a different road to reach the site. They arrived on-site at 1:13 a.m., he said, and the patient was out of the water at 1:40 a.m.

The victim may have been in the engorged stream for as long as an hour before Bella Vista got the call, he said.

There are a lot of risks involved in swift-water rescue, he said.

"We had to be very careful," he said. "That water was cold ... it was a pretty tight situation."

Sims said he drove the patient from the flooded site to a Freeman Ambulance Service ambulance that was on standby.

Bella Vista firefighter-paramedic Scott Larson stepped into the floodwaters to help the victim, who appeared to be losing grip while the water kept pushing.

"He was looking pretty weak," Larson said.

Larson said that the rescue went fairly smoothly, but that doesn't mean it was easy. Because the victim appeared to be hypothermic and weak, he said, rescuers weren't comfortable throwing a rope. The thick trees made the inflatable boat a risky option.

Emergency workers decided to go swim, a practice that places rescuers in the water -- though "swim" may be a bit of a misnomer.

"There's not a lot of swimming in swift water, it's going wherever the current takes you," Larson explained. "It's a lot of reading the water."

Larson was tethered to shore and brought an extra rope and a flotation device for the victim.

It was a team effort, he said. A lookout was stationed upstream to warn of any large objects heading toward the rescue site, while a pair of rescuers waited downstream to throw ropes if anyone got swept away.

The first maneuver didn't go quite to plan, but he was able to make do and get to the victim. The first priority was to get a life jacket on the victim, he said, then tether himself to him.

Using the tether back to shore, he was able to pendulum back to the shoreline with the reluctant victim.

"He was pretty panicked," Larson said. "He did not want to let go of that tree."

While this rescue went as well as it could have, Larson said, it's important to note that rescuers might not always be able to get to someone who's gotten into a sticky situation. There were difficulties in this case, he said, and swift-water rescues are among the most challenging.

People should do their best to stay out of floodwaters, he said, and be aware that it doesn't take particularly deep water to sweep a car away. A few inches can push a car off the road if it's got enough current, he said.

If a road is underwater, especially if the road surface can't be seen, the best option is to turn around. Even if the water appears shallow, the road may be washed out under it, he explained.

"It's much safer for everyone," Larson said.

General News on 05/09/2019

Print Headline: Bella Vista, McDonald County emergency workers rescue man from floodwaters

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