WELLINGTON TWP. — The Wellington Fire Department should have used an inflatable boat to rescue two teens clinging to trees in the swollen Black River last June rather than allowing rescue diver Allan “Buz” Anderson Jr. to enter the raging water, a report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources concluded. Anderson, 47, attached by a lifeline, drowned on his second attempt to reach the two teens, who were stranded after abandoning their SUV on flooded Pitts Road.
James T. Gorman, an ODNR investigator called the situation: “A dangerous site taken to the extreme.”
“The last thing that any rescuer should want to do; whether a fast water rescuer, pool or beach lifeguard, or a diver, is to go into the water unless nothing else is available,” Gorman wrote. “I still can’t believe that anyone thought they could swim against that current that day.
“I can only surmise that Al went back to a technique that he felt he knew best, and had the most experience with; get in the water.”
ODNR’s Division of Watercraft generally investigates fatalities and critical incidents in which boats are involved. In this case, the report was prepared at the request of Wellington Fire Chief Robert Walker, who provided a copy to The Chronicle.
Walker said Anderson died a hero, and he trusted him on that day to make the right decision about entering the water.
“He was trying to save two children’s lives,” Walker said Wednesday. “He did the best job he could.”
Gorman’s 26-page report criticized several decisions made by department personnel that day.
For example, he said firefighters were hampered by the lack of a motor for their inflatable raft, but they could have sent Anderson, the most experienced rescuer, over to the teens by tethering the boat and turning it loose in the water.
“I don’t know why the boat rescue wasn’t tried first; even if the motor wasn’t running,” Gorman’s report stated.
Walker said the motor of the department’s boat was damaged shortly before the flood, and no boat with a motor was available until a park ranger from Findley State Park arrived. Anderson already was in the water at that time, and the two Wellington firefighters who hopped into that boat and tried to rescue the teens ended up on a “hair-raising ride,’’ Gorman wrote.
They brought the boat back to shore, and the ranger successfully rescued the teens in an effort that was “nothing short of miraculous,” Gorman wrote.
The report also said that the fire department didn’t have any backup plans, noting that firefighters had not figured out what they would if the ranger’s boat had capsized, and there were no life preservers in the boat for the teens to put on for the ride back across the water.
Anderson was in the water during the first failed boat rescue and the second successful pass. But sometime between the two, the two teens — Chet Aden and Ashley Jordan — started yelling, telling firefighters that Anderson was in trouble, according to the report.
Gorman’s report also said that the firefighters didn’t use the right equipment — pulleys and other devices — to bring Anderson back to shore. He was tethered around a utility pole, and that in itself posed a danger because had the pole broken, Anderson would have been swept away, he said.
“The amount of friction around the pole had to be tremendous,” Gorman wrote.
Walker said the fire department has used the criticism from the report to improve.
Since Anderson’s death, the fire department has established a mutual aid pact with the Elyria water rescue team, it has purchased additional equipment and has a second boat. Also, 10 firefighters — as compared with the previous four — are trained for water rescues.
The department also has assigned Lt. Troy Pitts to prepare assessments of likely flood sites so firefighters will know what they are in for when they report to a rescue call, he said.
In addition, permanent signs, which are folded down when not needed, warn motorists of flooding on Pitts Road, Hawley and Cemetery roads and Jones Road, east of state Route 58. Devices showing the water levels have been installed on Pitts and Jones roads, the chief said.
Walker said despite the criticism, Gorman’s report did back up some of the department’s efforts on the day Anderson died.
Gorman wrote that firefighters acted correctly when they first tried to rescue the teens using “throw bags” with 60 to 70 feet of line. When the lines didn’t reach the teens, the rescuers’ next effort was to secure themselves to shore with lines manned by other rescue workers in hopes of getting them close enough for the throw bags to reach the teens.
But dense foliage and the turbulent water forced them back without ever reaching the teens. That’s when Anderson suited up to enter the water.
Carrying a rescue board and two lifejackets, Anderson lost his footing when he got to the road where he encountered “much more water force in a shallower area,” according to the report.
A rescue line was attached to the left side of his chest on a sliding device, which was not the optimal arrangement, Gorman wrote.
“Many people in water rescue insist the line be attached to the back ONLY,” Gorman’s report stated. “This position allows the rescuer to face downstream and allows any water to pass over the back of the head rather than onto the face.”
Gorman also said there were some unexplained issues involving Anderson’s death, including a tear in the chest area of his life jacket, which only would have occurred if he’d been pulled in a feet-first position. None of the video shot of the firefighters’ efforts that day show Anderson being pulled in that manner, Gorman wrote.
Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.