Responders recognized: Firefighters, deputies helped rescue flood victim in March

Published 6:51 am Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Friday, March 11, was a long day in Washington Parish.

The heavy winds and the rain swept in during the early morning darkness.

At 1 a.m., Justin Southern, a volunteer firefighter with Fire District 6, was already awake and helping clear away a downed tree.

That would be the least exciting part of his day.

As daylight broke, ditches, creeks and rivers were spilling over. At 5:30 a.m. or so, Southern and other volunteers responded to an apartment complex to rescue residents. The volunteer crew worked for about an hour-and a-half rescuing residents when Capt. Ben Ritter said he got a call a man was trapped, swept off the road from high water on Highway 436 and Dollar Road.

The man was Tim Sheridan, an employee at at Rayburn Correctional Center. He had been driving to work and tried to drive through water over the road. He didn’t make it.

Ritter had been up since 3 a.m., but he and Layton Paige brought a boat to the area to find Sheridan. The rushing, rising waters were precarious, however, and Ritter said it wasn’t long before the group ended up in trouble.

“We ended up taking water on,” Ritter said. “The current was so strong, there was nothing we couldn’t actually do but get out of the boat and hold on to (Sheridan), because the boat was going down.”

At this point, Southern and District Chief Kenny Nichols set out to rescue Ritter, Paige and Sheridan.

In the water and without a boat, Ritter turned his attention to saving Sheridan.

“I held on to him for 30 or 35 minutes,” he said.

“It was around 7 o’clock when I got there,” Nichols said. “I pulled up (to the station) and then me and one of my other firefighters was fixing to leave to go to another location. As we got into the truck our assistant chief hollered that our rescuers’ boat was going down and so we lost our boat.”

Nichols and Southern raced to the scene, but Southern said it wasn’t an easy rescue. The volunteer firefighters tied the boat off and, carefully, they lowered Sheridan into the rescue craft.

“But once we got him into the boat, his foot knocked off the fuel line on our boat and so we were dead in the water,” Southern said. In calmer waters, this shouldn’t have been an issue, but without power, the boat went flying downstream, as fast as the current could carry them.

“Me and Layton grabbed some trees to stop the boat, and it just ripped the boat out from under us,” Southern said. “At that point, I was a little worried.”

Southern and Paige were now stuck in trees, as the boat, with Chief Nichols and Sheridan, hurdled on, out beyond sight of the road.

“I finally reattached the fuel line, but then we hit a tree and the boat capsized,” Nichols said.

The chief said he and Sheridan managed to stand on a barbed wire fence that put them up to about waist level in the water. Nichols held tight to tree branches, and he held on to Sheridan.

“I couldn’t see nobody and nobody could see me,” Nichols said. “Nobody could see any of us. I was furthest out. And I prayed a little bit. And me and the good Lord talked a little while, and I held on to Mr. Sheridan, and I was starting to get pretty weak and I was trying to figure out my next step to keep either one of us from dying.”

Nichols explained that Sheridan had tried to help hold on to the tree, but he couldn’t do much.

“He’d been in the water from 5:30 a.m. … we got him out of the water for maybe 15 minutes and then he was back in the water. So he was wore out,” Nichols said. “He was helping me hold on, but it got to the point where he couldn’t do it any more. So I just held on to him.”

Sheriff’s deputies were on the way, but Nichols didn’t know that. He couldn’t see the road, and the river had taken away anything electrical he could have used to communicate. He did have an emergency whistle on his life vest though, so he blew that.

The other firefighters heard the whistle, but they couldn’t do much.

Southern said he and Paige managed to climb into a tree, and while they could see dry land, they couldn’t get to it.

“Layton said, ‘Justin, are we going to get out alive?’ I said, ‘Either we’ll wait three days for the water to come down, or they’ll come rescue us, or we’ll swim out of here. But either way, we’re getting out alive,’” Southern said.

None of firefighters lost hope. Ritter explained that everyone on the volunteer force understands that no one is going to get left behind.

“I just tried to keep my calm because I knew I had a good set of guys,” he said. “If one goes in, we all go, and that’s just how we are.”

A sheriff’s rescue crew wouldn’t get to the men until nearly 11 a.m., around four hours since the first attempt at the rescue. Nichols, who was with Sheridan and out of sight of the road, said he didn’t know what was happening until he saw the rescue boat coming.

“The water was too loud for me to hear anything that was going on,” he said. “But Deputy Brent Goings was coming with the sheriff’s deputies. As soon as I saw them, I knew we were going to be rescued because Brent knows how to operate a boat. … I knew it would just be another few minutes before we’d be on dry land again.”

Sheriff Randy Seal praised the whole effort, and said the parish is lucky no one died that day.

“By the grace of God, we did not lose anyone,” he said Saturday at an awards ceremony for the first responders involved in the rescue. “It was unbelievable.”

The ceremony was at First Missionary Baptist Church in Varnado, where the men from the volunteer fire department and the sheriff’s office were honored by their community and their families.

At the ceremony, Parish President Richard “Ned” Thomas called all the men heroes.

“At 4:30 that morning, we signed the declaration of emergency,” Thomas said. “We knew it was going to be bad, but we didn’t know it was going to be as bad as it was.”

But Nichols said it was really just another day.

“Somebody was in trouble and we went out to help; that’s how we are,” he said.

In hindsight, he said the two botched rescues weren’t the result of the weather or a lack of skill so much as just bad luck. He said it could have happened to anyone.

“Me personally, I told my assistant chief I didn’t deserve an award,” Nichols said. “I did what I do every day for the community … I was just doing what I do. If I had lost any of them, I wouldn’t have known what to do because we’re a family up there in that department.”

But, after four hours of being trapped, none of the firefighters had anything worse than some scratches. So, immediately after their own rescue, the four men went back to work rescuing others.

And they worked until dark.