Hamilton firefighters reflect on Hurricane Matthew mission

Lt. David Oakley, who has worked for the Hamilton Fire Department for 16 years, and Ray Smith, who retired in 2011 after a 31-year career with the department, were embedded with the 83-member task force that rescued dozens of residents and more than two dozen animals in the areas of Fayetteville and Lumberton, N.C.

Oakley and Smith recently talked with the Journal-News about their experience and said the images of people in rescue boats and on the backs of rescuers will stay with them forever.

“We rescued a family of four disabled people that had been trapped in their flooded home with water up to their chest for at least six hours,” Smith said. “We were going house-to-house, and those that never evacuated were glad to see us there. Some people didn’t want to leave, but we would come back and check on them, the water was higher, and they were ready to go then.”

Oakley said they rescued several elderly, pregnant and handicapped residents and some suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“They were confused when we were carrying them out into water and then to the rescue boat — but they mostly remained calm,” he said. “It was hard for them to understand what was going on.”

When they entered the flood waters surrounding one home, they found a man in his 50s, sitting on top of his recliner chair and waiting to be rescued.

“I got off the boat and was going to the house. There were appliances just floating in the river,” Oakley said. “I found him sitting on top of a recliner that was nearly submerged. … He couldn’t talk, but managed to alert us that his brother was in the back of the house.”

Unfortunately, Oakley said they didn’t find the man’s brother after searching the house, just a dog.

The storm killed 45 people in the United States with more than half of the victims being in North Carolina, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Oakley and Smith said the experience also delivered a strong message about poverty and other social issues.

Both men said it was tough to see so many poor families “lose everything” and be displaced.

“They just lost everything they had,” Smith said. “If you don’t have insurance it is going to be worse.”

Two Cincinnati firefighters — Mike Lutz and Andrew Herbert — were also part of the task force and rescued a family of four trapped in their flooded home for several hours.

“We swung around, trying to get through the current, and we see someone beating on the window of a house … We couldn’t go to where they were at because we would have been pinned against the house,” Lutz said.

Lutz and Herbert maneuvered a boat toward the rear of the house, where the water was moving slower. Herbert broke a window to get in. He found three people in their 20s and a woman in her 60s. They were cold and had been in the house for about seven hours. The older woman could not walk and the rescuers had to lift her through the window to get her in the boat.

“Those people were in a very bad situation that we helped them get away from,” Herbert said.

Lutz said it was a complicated rescue, his first swift-water rescue in a flooded environment.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “At least we were able to come down here and do what we’re supposed to do so it was nice,” he said.

FEMA initially assigned the task force and 10 other rescue groups to Lakeland, Fla. Reassignment orders sent the team to Columbia, S.C., to Savannah, Ga., then to Charlotte, N.C., and finally to Fayetteville and Lumberton.

“This is the most rewarding experience I have had personally since the World Trade Center and I know it’s impacted a lot of the other guys the same way,” task force leader Doug Cope said.

“Most of the hurricanes have been wide area searches on land because until just recently, we didn’t have watercraft in our system,” Cope said when asked what set this mission to the southeastern United States apart from others. “So they put a mechanism in place for us to get the watercraft to train on it and we proved that it worked.”

Staff writer Gabrielle Enright contributed to this report.

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