Firefighters honored for valor

Sean C. Morgan

Four Sweet Home firefighters received awards at the Oregon Fire Chiefs Association Meritorious Awards Banquet held Saturday in Salem.

They included Battalion Chief Guy Smith, Chris Barnes, Eli Harris and Chad Calderwood.

Smith received the Distinguished Conduct Award. Barnes, Harris and Calderwood received a Unit Citation.

Smith was honored for rescuing a mother and her daughter whose raft had capsized July 6, 2010 in the South Santiam River, leaving them struggling against the rapids in a shallow area of the ice-cold river, a step away from a deep hole, Beaver said. Smith was off-duty at the time, and reached the scene before the on-duty staff was able to. The victims were part of a family of four who had been rafting. The husband and son had made it safely to shore before Smith arrived.

“He had already been down to the river,” said Fire Chief Mike Beaver, who arrived on the scene after Smith. “He came back, handed me his phone and waded out there. It was deep and cold. He reacted to the situation. There was no deliberation. He just did it.”

Smith wore only shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

“He didn’t have any equipment – personal flotation devices – or anything to really do a safe extraction from the river,” Beaver said. “(The mother) was spent, saying how cold and tired she was. Even though it was July 6, the water’s still freezing cold.”

When Smith finally reached the victims the mother was hypothermic and was exhausted from holding the child, who was about 6, safely above the water. Smith took the youngster and comforted the pair as he awaited the arrival of the rescue boat. Less than five minutes later, the emergency vessel arrived from the Pleasant Valley boat ramp and brought the woman and her child to the shore for evaluation and treatment.

Normally, Smith would have had a helmet, a flotation device and maybe a wetsuit, Beaver said, but they didn’t know how long the woman had been standing in the water.

Smith said the water was probably up to the woman’s knees. He had to wade chest deep to get to her.

The current was strong, Smith said. When the rescue boat arrived, the driver had some difficulty getting close.

“I really figured I’d get swept down,” Smith said, but if he did, he figured he could swim out and try again.

Smith is familiar with the area, called the S-curves, he said. Drift boats often turn over there, and the current often causes rescuers issues.

But the temperature is a bigger factor, Smith said. He thought if the mother went down, the child was going in too, and she was telling him and Beaver that she couldn’t feel her legs and couldn’t hold on, Smith said. He didn’t think she would last until the boat got there, so he went out to assist them until it did.

“When somebody’s telling you they’re cold and exhausted, you’ve got to believe them,” Beaver said.

Barnes, Harris and Calderwood received their citation for their rescue of Ron and Maryanne Rettke from the roof of Sweet Home Lanes in the early morning of Jan. 28.

While fire raged through the bowling center and up the stairway into the upstairs apartment area, the Rettkes escaped onto the roof of the entrance.

The three arrived on the first engine, Beaver said. Prior to beginning fire suppression, they immediately set a ladder up and assisted the Rettkes off the roof. They escorted the Rettkes to an ambulance waiting in front of the Skyline Inn.

Half a minute or so later, the roof’s bowstring construction collapsed, Beaver said. When it went down, it sent a wall of fire over the roof.

“I have no doubt that their efforts made a big difference,” Beaver said.