By Chelsea Royer
Mike Kolodzie of the Aberdeen Fire Department was the first firefighter on scene at the home that had been disrupted by a sudden landslide. Swept off its foundation and the front half of the building collapsed, the thundering water threatened to cause further damage to the already compromised structure.
Off-duty Officer Ross Lampky of the Aberdeen Police Department made every effort to communicate with the first responders over the noise of the rushing water. He had arrived first, aware of the landslide because the resident, an 80-year-old woman named Gayle Christner, was his neighbor. He could hear her trapped inside the home, but getting to her would be far from a simple process.
“She was trapped in a space the size of a kitchen cabinet,” explains Kolodzie. “It was a complete mess. We couldn’t see her. We couldn’t hear her. We didn’t know if she was even alive at that point because we were having some confusion in communication.”
Lampky remained on the other side of the wreckage, separated by a river and slick mud. Kolodzie continued his efforts to press forward and after 30 minutes, the water subsided to the point where the responders could communicate more with the neighbors and with Lampky. Despite the hurdles, Lampky says, “nothing stopped the fire officers from coming.”
Once they were able to reach the house, however, they were met with further challenges. “You have to consider the safety of the person being rescued and also the safety of the responders,” expresses Kolodzie. “We didn’t know if cutting into the home would compromise the structure or not.”
Fire Officer Wally Montz was also on scene. “The instability of the structure was perhaps the most unnerving thing,” Montz adds. Once Gayle was located, it was determined that the firemen would have to cut through the roof.
“There was some surgical cutting by Kolodzie….with a chainsaw,” recalls fire officer Steve Pratt, also a member on scene. The officers commended Gayle for her bravery. With only two feet of space between the roof and her head, cutting had to be exact. “She was incredibly brave,” insists Montz. “Her only response when we explained the process of getting her out was, ‘Well, I better cover my face.’ She didn’t even caution us.”
Thankfully, this rescue operation had a happy ending, with even one of the dogs walking away in good health. “To have Gayle walk out with only bumps and bruises is amazing. The state of the house, the amount of water, how far it moved…with all these factors it’s amazing she even survived,” marvels Kolodzie. Rescue operations don’t always have positive endings like this one, but Pratt explains, “You learn from experience on every call – good or bad. This one will help with the next.”
The team effort between Aberdeen Police Department, Aberdeen Fire Department, and many other on-scene officers not mentioned here, resulted in a positive outcome.
Rescue operations for both firefighters and police officers require a clear head, a direct approach, and an awareness for all possible factors. With safety being the number one priority for both officer and patient alike, the process is sometimes complicated. Grays Harbor fire departments were inundated with calls the Monday morning of the flooding as people became stranded or were in need of medical care or medication.
Though there aren’t many things you can do to prevent your house from being swept away, the Aberdeen Fire Department recommends emergency preparedness in the form of keeping a three day’s supply of food, bottled water, and medication. The Beacon Hill landslide of the same day blocked an entire hill of homes from access to town. Though a logging road was eventually made available, homeowners would have been trapped far longer had there not been such an avenue, at which point preparedness would have been vital.
The destruction in our towns due to flooding has been extensive, but we have seen people of all walks of life teaming together to provide help and restoration. Not the least to thank are the first responders who, rather than run from disaster, run towards it without complaint to ensure the safety of local citizens.