When rescuers become victims
ANDREW LEIBENGUTH/TIMES NEWS Ryan Township Emergency Rescue Squad and Dive Team volunteers who responded to last year's Pine Grove flooding were, from left, Mike Mistishen, 61, EMT and First Assistant Chief; Mike Murphy, 53, driver; Mike Harris, 30, EMT; and Darrell Harris, 55, EMT and Chief.
"All we could do was hang on and wait," said volunteer EMT diver Mike Harris of the Ryan Township Emergency Rescue Squad and Dive Team, as he described being swept away with fellow volunteers after fast moving flood waters struck the area late last August.
Exactly one year after flash flooding devastated the Pine Grove area, four Ryan Township Emergency Rescue Squad (RT-ERS) and Dive Team volunteers traveled back to the area where they almost lost their lives in a 15-foot high flash flood that separated three of them and stranded them for over three hours in open water before being rescued themselves. They consisted of 14-year volunteer Mike Harris; his father, 28-year volunteer EMT diver and Chief Darrell Harris, 55; 17-year volunteer EMT diver Mike Mistishen, 61; and 1-year volunteer Mike Murphy, 53, driver.
At about 12:30 a.m. Sunday August 28, four members of the Ryan Township ERS and Dive Team were dispatched to Pine Grove to help ferry residents from their homes to dry land. While en route to Pine Grove on I81, they received another dispatch asking them to aid a stranded tractor trailer driver whose rig was swept into the median from fast moving floodwaters at the Pine Grove exit. Working in heavy rain, thunder, lightning and tornado warnings, the squad spent the next half-hour rescuing the driver and four others stranded in flooded waters.
"Within minutes, the waters rose over the headlights of our large rescue truck," said RT-ERS Chief and EMT Darrell Harris as he described seeing floodwaters completely overtake both lanes of I81. "Both our rescue boat and trailer were floating." A passing tow truck driver, seeing the rescuers helping stranded drivers, hooked onto our rig to keep in from being swept away in the fast moving waters.
Darrell added, "Seeing other cars getting stuck, we decided to close both lanes of I81 at the Pine Grove on and off ramps at exit 100." "Since the bridge was gone we had to travel south in the northbound lanes."
After closing I81 and helping multiple motorists, the squad was dispatched to SR443 in Suedberg at around 3 a.m., one mile west of I81, for another tractor trailer driver stranded in floodwaters.
When they arrived, Mike Harris put on his dry suit, kife jacket and safety harness and headed into knee high water in search of the tractor trailer, which was located around a sharp turn.
"I was only in the water less than two minutes, when all of a sudden the water began to rise over my hips and eventually over waist," said Mike Harris. "Before I knew it, the fast moving water rose 10 feet and carried me away. I had to stick my feet in front of me to stop myself from smashing my head into a tree."
Seeing the flash flood and Mike's flashlight disappear, the other three rescuers launched a rescue for Mike. After launching their rescue boat, a wide flatbed cargo canoe, Mike Harris and Mike Mistishen headed out to rescue Mike, who tied himself to a tree. Before they knew it, the rapid-like waters overwhelmed their boat and launched them into the open waters as well.
"The current was unbelievably strong," said Mike Mistishen. "It was impossible to keep our feet below the water."
Mike Murphy, who saw the boat flip, saw them go in and immediately called dispatch for a rescue.
The water, now over 20 feet high at its highest point, turned into a funnel at one point.
A rescue attempt by the National Guard resulted in their two-and-a-half ton truck getting stuck. After being stranded in the fast-moving waters for over 3 hours, all three were eventually rescued with the assistance of a few Good Samaritans using a boot and rope and Pennsylvania National Guard using a 5 ton truck.