Chief Ned DeBerg
Personnel: 112 line and staff personnel
Apparatus: Four engines, one rescue, one quint, one aerial platform, three ambulances, one brush truck, one technical rescue truck, one hazmat unit
Area: 62 square miles
"Holy cow," Acting Officer Jeff Ruehs said as the Waterloo, IA, Fire Department's first-arriving unit, Engine 305, reached the scene of a two-vehicle accident on June 23, 2003. The 19-year fire service veteran has responded to many vehicle accidents, but none like this one. A station wagon had pulled out in front of a dump truck loaded with dirt at the intersection of Dubuque and Osage roads. When the truck driver took evasive action, the truck flipped over onto the car, burying it under a load of dirt in the middle of the four-lane road.
Craig Maire, 53, a 16-year employee with the City of Waterloo Street Department, saw the accident happen, called the incident in and dashed to the scene. "A woman who was driving the car was yelling 'The baby! The baby!' "
Maire thought the woman, who was buried up to her shoulders in dirt inside the car, meant a small child in the back seat. What she meant was a seven-week-old baby in an infant seat buried beneath a mound of dirt behind her.
"I cleared the dirt away and saw the baby's mouth and nose and it was breathing," said Maire, who took the baby from its car seat and handed it over to firefighters once they were on scene.
The initial alarm was reported as a car-truck accident with injuries. Soon, the alarm was upgraded to a car-truck accident with entrapment, then a car-truck accident with children entrapped.
"The whole thing sounded worse the closer we got," said Engineer/Paramedic Sean Schott, who was on the first fire department unit dispatched to the incident. In Waterloo a first-alarm assignment to a vehicle accident includes an engine and an ambulance.
Battalion Chief Larry Ohlson, who was responding to the incident, requested an additional ambulance plus Engine 301, the department's rescue engine, when he received the report of the entrapment. Soon, Ohlson also requested Engine 303, the department's foam unit, because of fuel leaking from the dump truck's saddle tank.
"When I first pulled up, I thought, my God, there's got to be people dead here," said Ohlson, who assumed command of the incident from Ruehs.
Dirt from the dump truck had blown through the windshield, totally flooding the front seat area of the car and crushing the roof down until there was very little space for the mother's head. Once on scene, a hoseline was deployed, then firefighters moved in to assess the scene.
Schott took the baby from Maire. "He was all covered with dirt," Schott said. "All I could see was his mouth and nose and he was spitting dirt. I brushed the dirt off his face. He opened his eyes and started breathing. All his ABCs were good."
Ruehs said, "When I did my initial assessment and found that the mother and child were talking, my anxiety level went down." The mother told Ruehs she didn't hurt anywhere, she just couldn't move.
Lieutenant Mike Junk, the officer in charge of Engine 301, first confirmed the condition of the occupants with Ohlson, then put his crew to work.
"The first thing we did was use shovels to expose the car door," Junk said. "Then we determined that what we had to do was take the roof of the car off. My biggest concern was with all the dirt inside the car. We didn't know if the driver's legs were pinned under the dash or not. We dug the dirt away from her head real gently not being certain of her injuries."
The side door and the roof were removed and the woman was able to move enough that she helped firefighters get her out. The three-year-old child was removed from the rear of the car almost immediately. Firefighters could not get a backboard inside the car, so Ruehs slid inside the car and put a C-collar on the child, then functioned as a human backboard, stabilizing the child as his comrades slid the two out of the back of the car.
All three occupants of the vehicle were extricated and on their way to the hospital 20 minutes after receipt of the alarm. The children were uninjured except for a few scratches. The mother had only minor injuries.
All involved concede that there was a lot of luck involved. The dirt actually cushioned the impact. Had the dump truck been carrying concrete or rock, the victims would likely have been killed. If the car had struck the truck, it would likely have driven right under it, shearing the top off.
"It was one of the worst things I've seen with the best outcome," said Junk.
Ruehs also was pleased with the outcome. "As a new officer, it was a learning experience for me," he said. "As an ex-paramedic, it would have been very easy to get tunnel vision and focus on the woman and children when we first arrived. I had to back up and consider the whole scene while the rest of the firefighters went to work."
Though luck was a factor in the positive outcome of what could have been a disastrous incident; training, communications and effective incident management all contributed significantly to the outcome.
"Communication was the key," Junk said. "Everyone was talking out loud about what they were doing and what they needed. Everyone was on the same wave length."
Ruehs agreed, noting, "Communication was excellent and ICS fell into place."
Firefighters noted two lessons learned from the incident: Never assume people are dead, and it was the training they had received that made everything go so smoothly.
"It's a classic example where there's nothing routine in our business," said Firefighter Sam Webb, a 14-year veteran of the department.
Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for Leadership and Administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.