The Edmond Sun

June 14, 2013

Firefighters, police aid growing list of communities

Mark Schlachtenhaufen
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — During the past few weeks Edmond first responders have been busy, assisting a growing list of incidents — tornadoes, flash flooding and a drowning.

On May 19, tornado paths tracked in or near Edmond, Arcadia, Luther, Carney and Shawnee.

On May 20 tornadoes were in or near Newcastle, Little Axe, Oklahoma City, Moore, El Reno, Marlow, Bray and Meeker. Heavy rains affected much of Oklahoma County.

On May 31, an EF-5 tornado with a maximum width of 2.6 miles and maximum winds of 295 mph formed in the El Reno area. Other tornado paths tracked in or near Omega, Calumet, Lightning Creek Park, southwest Oklahoma City and Moore. Flash flooding led to at least 23 high water rescues. The rains elevated the water level of Arcadia Lake by 10.5 feet flooding much of the park areas. The city closed the lake to the public indefinitely as of June 3, but city officials are hopeful the lake will reopen soon. The elevated water levels flowing downstream from the metro may have played a role in a drowning near Luther in the Deep Fork River.

Edmond Police Department spokeswoman Jenny Monroe said the agency sent several personnel to Moore who worked in 15-hour shifts day and night through May 24. They assisted with command post operations, securing the perimeter and they detained looters until they were arrested by the Moore Police Department.

Monroe said the EPD had 5.75 hours of overtime on the May 19 Edmond tornado and 592.25 hours of OT on the Moore tornado. The agency is still working with the federal government to determine the amount of reimbursement, Monroe said.

“For the men and women of the Edmond Police Department, it’s natural instinct to want to help,” Monroe said. “They understand what their colleagues are going through.”

The agency also knows, due to the brotherhood that exists among first responders, that if a need were to arise in Edmond, others would come here, Monroe said.

Fire Chief Jake Rhoades said on May 20, the Edmond Fire Department sent nearly 40 personnel including members of an urban search-and-rescue team and the department’s nine fire recruits. Fire personnel worked shifts until the following day, Rhoades said.

After their service, they were debriefed by a facilitator who did the same following the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin a couple of years ago, Rhoades said. Debriefing helps personnel process their feelings and prepares them for the next call, he said.

Since May 19, Edmond personnel have responded to weather-related events in Carney, Shawnee, Kingfisher, Moore and most recently the drowning near Luther in the Deep Fork River, Rhoades said. As long as Edmond is taken care of first, city officials support assisting other communities as needs arise, Rhoades said.



CALL OF A LIFETIME

For most fire service recruits, a memorable first call would be assisting on a structure fire, something that doesn’t happen every day. Edmond’s nine recruits got to experience the call of a lifetime.

 On May 20, they were near I-35 and Covell in a classroom at the fire administration campus. They were going through a lesson on self-contained breathing apparatus, better known in the fire service as SCBAs, when the massive tornado was heading toward Moore.

Coverage of the event was being shown on the television in the room. The EF-5 tornado damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures including a hospital and two elementary schools.

At about 3:30 p.m., Edmond Fire Department leadership met just outside the classroom. The recruits — Dustin Bowman, 21, of Guthrie, Jason Dillon, 26, of Midwest City, Johnny Gibson, 32, of Edmond, Izea Lovejoy, 24, Hilo, Hawaii, Taylor Mick, 23, of Bethany, Cody Sanders, 23, of Moore, Tyler Smith, 23, of Edmond, Jacob Stangl, 25, of Kingfisher, and Craig Williamson, 35, of Charlottesville, Va., learned they would be heading into Moore.

Lovejoy said for a couple of hours, the recruits had been decked out in full SCBA gear and taking notes when Capt. Gregory Westermier, a member of a related task force, began monitoring TV coverage. Sanders was excused to check on his family situation in Moore.

“After they came back in they said get your stuff, we’re going,” Lovejoy said. “We got all of our gear together. We didn’t really know what to expect. I figured since we are the new guys we’d just get to do a lot of the grunt work.”

At about 4:15 p.m., the recruits headed down to Moore. They checked in at a command post and received their assignments. Lovejoy was extremely familiar with the city, where he served as a restaurant manager for a couple of years.

“For me, it kind of hit home,” he said.

It was the first fire service call for Lovejoy, who was assigned to a task force and was one of the first recruits on scene. Civilians were trying to get out of the affected area. Lovejoy went to Plaza Towers Elementary School, which suffered extensive damage. He recalls standing atop rubble that had been a school wall and seeing concrete slabs that used to be the foundation of houses.

“It looked like somebody had just dropped a bomb and that it was the end of the world,” Lovejoy said.

Williamson, who has 12 years of fire service experience on his résumé, said people live their whole lifetimes and never see something of the magnitude of the destruction in Moore.

At the school, Williamson said responders had received different reports about where victims were likely to be, last known locations. It was a matter of removing debris without threatening victims who might be in a pocket, he said. He could make out walls that were lying on their side.

Williamson understood the responders had a job to do and the faster the work could be done the more lives could be possibly saved. Debris was removed via a bucket brigade type line.

Each person reacts to an incident differently.

“For myself, it didn’t hit me until I got home with my wife,” Williamson said, the emotion detectable in his voice. “And it’s still tough to talk about.”

Mick said when he learned he would be assisting with operations at the school his main thought was getting to those who were in the school. At the site, the debris was removed sometimes one brick at a time. He picked up children’s’ shoes, lunch pails and arts and crafts items. In what was a classroom, all the walls had fallen but one, where a line of backpacks were still hanging.

That night, at home, Mick thought about his life and how the destruction puts things in perspective.

“Don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “Life, snap your fingers, it can be gone. Live your life to the fullest. And every chance you get try to make a difference.”



marks@edmondsun.com | 341-2121, ext. 108