Saving a rescue boat

Saturday, November 24, 2001

After spending countless hours renovating a rescue boat they'd come to think of as their own, Cape Girardeau firefighters were forced to scramble to find funding to keep it.

A recent ultimatum from the Missouri State Water Patrol nearly put serious limitations on the fire department's ability to perform water rescues.

A year ago, the state water patrol offered a used, 18-foot john boat as part of a program in which the water patrol indefinitely "loans" equipment to other rescue agencies.

But budget cuts this year are forcing the water patrol to discontinue the loan program and either sell or repossess its equipment by Dec. 15.

An Oct. 12 letter from the water patrol commissioner gave Cape firefighters an ultimatum: Buy the boat or give it back.

"Due to circumstances beyond our control, we must immediately discontinue the equipment loan program," wrote Col. Jerry E. Adams.

Cape firefighters, who had been making improvements themselves to the watercraft -- painting, rewiring and adding safety equipment -- were loathe to give up the boat.

"The fire department has been working on this river rescue project for approximately a year," said Capt. Tom Hinkebein.

A tight city budget dictated that the more than $1,000 necessary to buy the boat would have to come from elsewhere.

Donations from VFW Post No. 3838 enabled the department to buy the boat and trailer. Together, the VFW and its ladies auxiliary contributed about $1,400.

Familiar waters

With its main station located just a few blocks from the Mississippi River, the Cape Girardeau Fire Department is often called to the water to aid in emergency situations.

Local firefighters perform 12 to 15 water rescues a year, said assistant fire chief Mark Hasheider.

Like land calls, water rescues vary. Firefighters assist police when suicidal people attempt to drown themselves, help stranded fisherman with mechanical trouble and rush to aid victims of boat accidents.

Just a week ago, firefighters headed south to assist the North Scott County Ambulance Service with a man on a houseboat who was complaining of stomach pain.

Quicker on the river

On Friday, Capt. Larry Davie and firefighter Mike Allen demonstrated the boat.

Pounding through the wakes of several barges, Allen explained how important it was to have a higher power motor in order to quickly reach stranded individuals.

The boat is equipped with a 70-horsepower motor as well as a trolling motor.

Allen trained in water rescue techniques with the Memphis Fire Department. Raised in Sikeston, he's been going out on the Mississippi River since he was a child.

"I'm not afraid of the river, but I have a lot of respect for it," Allen said.

Davie agreed: "This is one dangerous piece of water."

If a boat has run out of gas or runs into mechanical failure, it often can't avoid larger, less maneuverable crafts.

This was illustrated July 1 last year when a 15-foot pleasure boat ran out of gas, crashed into a barge and knocked the five occupants of the smaller boat into the water and under the barge.

One man died in the mishap.

Cape firefighters assisted the state water patrol with the nighttime rescue of the four survivors and subsequent search for the missing man.

At the time, the fire department relied on their own small dinghy with its 25-horsepower motor and volunteers with boats.

A year later, both boats were called into action to aid motorists stranded by flooded intersections.

Firefighter Brad Dillow and Capt. Charles Brawley rescued one woman on Boutin Drive who was stranded in her van by high water.

Tying a rope around his waist, Dillow waded through water that was at times chest-deep.

He calmed the woman, frantic because she couldn't swim. With Brawley holding on to the other end of the rope, he coaxed her to climb to higher ground to await the boat, which carried them to safety.

abuchanan@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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