Firefighters save two from sinking truck

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An exhausted Caleb Shea stands on shore while Robby Wemark secures a boat used in last week’s rescue. Both are members of Elkader’s all-volunteer Fire Department.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor

 

T

he heroic actions of area law enforcement and local rescue personnel last week saved the lives of two Northeast Iowans.

George Balekos, 86, of Monona, and Valerie Timmerman, 54, of Strawberry Point, were in a pick-up truck that tumbled down a rocky embankment behind the Clayton County Courthouse and then plunged into the frigid waters of the Turkey River. Timmerman, the passenger, was able to exit the vehicle; Balekos, who was driving, was trapped in his place behind the steering wheel.

The drama unfolded just before 2 p.m. last Wednesday when the dispatch center at the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call about the accident. Sheriff Mike Tschirgi and several deputies raced to the scene. All volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel were alerted, as well. Firefighters Caleb Shea, Corey Koehn and Robby Wemark were among the first to arrive.

“While we were en route, I instructed Robby to unpack our (wet) suits and have them ready to go,” Shea said. “When we got out of the truck, we just put on the suits and went in.”

To reach the truck, which was almost fully submerged, Shea and Koehn climbed down a cliff through a tangle of brush and small trees. Safety lines tightly held by sheriff’s deputies and other firefighters were securely fastened to their waists. Initially, their suits protected them from the cold water, which Elkader Fire Chief Scott Marmann estimated at around 42 degrees. 

“Corey and I both damaged our suits on debris causing the lower half of the suits to fill with water,” Shea said. “That actually gave us a little more ballast to stay put.”

The river’s current was also a factor that Shea and Koehn had to take into account.

“We had to be very careful where we were in the water because the current was very strong, and it was hard even to stand in a place where we could reach the bottom,” Koehn said.

While Koehn assisted Timmerman, Shea made his way to the driver’s side of the truck. With water levels reaching Balekos’ neck, Shea knew he had to get the man out of the vehicle. He tried to break the driver’s side window.

“That didn’t work so I pried the door open against the current, and propped myself between the door and the truck to keep it from closing again,” Shea said. 

Shea lifted Balekos onto the roof of the truck. Nearby rescuer workers radioed the message that the driver had been extricated. In a meeting with Marmann, Shea later learned that the rescue had taken an astonishingly short amount of time.

“The (official) report says it was six minutes from when dispatch received the call that a truck was in the river to the time it was radioed in that I had pulled him out of the truck and onto the roof,” Shea said.

Shea and Koehn stayed with the pair until a rescue boat arrived. They didn’t have long to wait for firefighter Jared Burkle who was soon on the scene in a borrowed flat-bottomed boat that was more conducive to the rescue than the department’s larger craft.

“Burkle ended up being the third rescuer,” Marmann said. “He jumped into the river with just a life jacket on to help stabilize the boat while the victims were being loaded.”

Timmerman and Balekos were taken first to Central Community Hospital. Timmerman was treated and released but Balekos was almost immediately transported by helicopter to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Amazingly, he was released just two days later.

Several factors contributed to the successful rescue. Foremost is the training that all volunteer firefighters receive. According to Marmann, members of the department regularly practice maneuvers like water and ice rescue. 

“We hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” Marmann said. “Even so, I would never have imagined that a river rescue would be such a complex procedure. Our team made good choices. I cannot praise them enough.”

Marmann, whose equipment was later used to pull the truck out of the river, added that he believes the vehicle started to flip over on its way down the embankment but then righted itself before landing on its tires in the river.

“If it had landed upside down, it would have been a recovery only mission,” he added, somberly.

To a person, everyone associated with the rescue shrugged off his efforts as part of the job. 

“Everyone just kept their head on straight and did what needed to be done to get those people out,” Shea added.  Shea also gave a nod to area employers who support the volunteer commitments of their workers.

“Without the constant support from our employers, our firefighters wouldn’t be able to drop with they’re doing and respond to situations like this,” he said. “They sacrifice time, productivity and wages for us to be involved in these types of responses. It’s something that doesn’t get mentioned very often but it is a big part of our support system.” 

For Koehn and others, the daring rescue epitomizes the character of the community.

“The main thing I’ve realized (since the rescue) is how tight knit we are,” he said. “Everyone is happy to drop everything and help someone in need, no matter who they might be.”

As the rescue boat carrying Balekos sped towards the waiting ambulance, the crowd that gathered along the bridge burst into applause. Let’s hope the everyday heroes who protect and rescue us, generally with little regard for their own safety, heard them.

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