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I was there: "Bubbas in a boat"

By Marty Kufus

Filthy brown water lapped against our frogman-black inflatable boat. This was our first real rescue mission, during what would become the worst flood in local history. Only four months earlier our rural county had been gripped by a drought and the threat of wildfire, like the rest of South Texas. But when it did rain, it damned well poured.

It was 0230 on 18 October 1998. The Zodiac boat carried five of us, all volunteer firemen and, additionally, members of the Wilson County Volunteer Emergency Response Team (ERT). Raindrops beaded on our yellow helmets; rescue ropes and extra life vests and helmets covered the floor of the 10-man boat. We moved slowly in the Cibolo Creek’s flood just outside the small town of LaVernia.

I was braced against the big tube of the Zodiac’s port bow, holding my paddle upside down in the water to probe for hidden obstacles. Beside me, paramedic Scott Akin scanned with a large flashlight to spot debris or any low-hanging power lines.

The last time I was in a Zodiac at night, I thought, drifting back 14 years, was in the Florida phase of Army Ranger School — that search-and-destroy against “Comandante Jose” and his Marxist guerrillas. Something underwater grabbed my paddle. “Fence!” I yelled. The boat shook. Team leader Edwin Baker immediately reacted — without swallowing his Copenhagen snuff — and cut the throttle. An unseen object, probably a fence post, had scraped the heavy-fabric keel then banged against the outboard motor’s lower unit. This was no place to get hung up — a mile from dry land, in 6 feet of water with a current of 15 to 20 mph.

“We’re OK,” Edwin said after a few long seconds.

Big-city firemen might consider us to be “bubbas” — smalltown guys — but we had a good boat which we had trained with. And even if it had been punctured, the multichambered Zodiac very likely would have stayed afloat. (Months earlier, a Soldier Of Fortune colleague of mine, East Texas native and retired Navy SEAL Larry Bailey, alerted me to the possibility of a good deal on a Zodiac for our newly created ERT. His acquaintance at Zodiac of North America was former Marine Recon, a helluva good guy who later approved our purchase of a 1988 SpecOps prototype: a model F420 that had been used only as a demonstrator.)

Edwin slowly opened the throttle of the little 15-horsepower motor. Scott, myself and the two other guys — Mark Lerma of Stockdale’s volunteer fire department (whose members included Edwin and Scott) and Nick Hencey from the Eagle Creek VFD — resumed our lookout. Objects — half-ton bales of hay — drifted by in the current.

Ahead, on the other side of the flooded house and barn, two flashlights were being waved skyward. Two high-axle trucks of the LaVernia VFD were stranded in this s--t. Perched atop them were 2nd Assistant Fire Chief Billy Bob Bruner and 11 other firemen in life vests. Around midnight they had been sent out to evacuate some local folks who had ignored earlier warnings to evacuate — but then punched 911 howling for help when the flood hit. LaVernia’s off-road trucks had handled high water before and the firemen did not lack for courage. But Mother Nature can be a tricky bitch.

Now, despite the LaVernia fire chief’s urgent requests, no rescue helicopters — Army or civilian — were able to fly in the rainy darkness. Things were no better in San Antonio, 16 miles northwest.

A massive storm in south-central Texas dumped 15 or more inches of rain in Bexar County alone, creating a killer flood that swept through the “Alamo City” along the San Antonio River and Salado and Olmos creeks. Twelve hours later portions of Wilson County began to flood. What timing. Just that week my parent organization, the Floresville VFD, had sent me to a swiftwater-rescue course in Texas taught by the California-based Rescue 3 International.

I was wearing a wetsuit under my life vest, ankle-high sneakers, a rescue whistle on a cord, and a Ka-Bar “Next Generation” knife in a Kydex scabbard. Not that I wanted to get out of the Zodiac for a rescue swim: oil, chemicals, raw sewage, trees, household and farm debris, dead animals, large clumps of pissed-off fire ants, probably some rattlesnakes and copperheads and God knows what else were being swept along by this water.

Clouds parted briefly. Faint moonlight shone. The flooding Cibolo seemed to be miles wide. Our hand-held radio crackled.

“We see your light,” radioed Billy Bob. He and seven firemen were on “Kong,” the lead truck. A highly modified military-surplus 5-ton, it sported yellow paint, roll cages, battering-ram bumper (for small trees), a large water tank with pump, firehoses and other gear. Kong had broken the current head-on — until it turned off Dry Hollow Road and exposed its side to the relentless water. The second truck, also military surplus but unmodified, had stalled and was pushed off the road even before the turn. A wide stretch of water separated them.

Kong sat against a submerged fence, water up to its headlights, but otherwise stable. Billy Bob and his firemen were OK for now.

“Tell him we’re going to the other truck,” Edwin said to Mark, who held the radio. About 20 yards out I stood and tossed a “throw bag” of rescue rope. A LaVernia fireman grabbed it and secured the yellow line, just in case. The truck didn’t look all that stable. We approached slowly. Kneeling, I reached out and grabbed a truck door. We docked.

It wasn’t that these guys weren’t equipped for flood rescue. The truck carried an aluminum fishing boat with motor, a small inflatable boat, and a Jet Ski. The senior fireman wore a wetsuit like mine; he’d had water-rescue training, too. But Murphy’s Law was in effect. “The boat got a hole knocked in it,” the LaVernia fireman said, shining his flashlight along the aluminum.

As long as it didn’t snag a submerged fence, the Jet Ski possibly could have towed their inflatable boat. But the machine wasn’t going anywhere.

“The [ignition] key is over on Kong,” he added.

“OK, here’s the deal,” Edwin said. “We can only take two of you this trip.

We gotta fight a bad current on the way back. I don’t want to try it with a full load, yet.”

His caution was justified. A half-hour ago, immediately after launching from a neighborhood on the edge of LaVernia, Nick, Scott, Mark, and I had to paddle furiously for 100 yards as Edwin fought the cross-current with the motor. Once we passed stands of trees (and two submerged houses) we simply moved from eddy to eddy until reaching open water.

Scott made a medical decision: The two youngest firemen, a boy and girl who looked all of 18, would go first. Both were shivering under their life vests from cold and fright.

“We’ll be fine,” the senior fireman assured us. His partner wore a hooded Gore-Tex jacket. Neither of them would go hypothermic. If worse came to worse — if their truck started to roll over — they could cast off in their rubber boat and go with the flow.

I pushed us away. “We’ll be back,” Edwin said.

By daybreak we had made four more trips, at least 10 miles total. We retrieved Billy Bob and the rest of his boys. We also took two young women and a small dog from a mobile home not far from Kong. The building sat on concrete blocks, but water inside was 2 feet deep and rising.

Wilson County’s flood lasted two days. Law-enforcement officers, dozens of volunteer firemen and EMTs, and county road crews worked nonstop. There were a few rescues by helicopter. The normally tranquil Cibolo Creek broke its flood record; on the other of side of Wilson County, the San Antonio River fell just short of its record. The creek and river never before had flooded simultaneously.

Some 350 homes and numerous farms, ranches, and small businesses were hit — but nobody died.

Volunteer fire departments, including LaVernia’s and Floresville’s, evacuated a number of civilians from harm’s way. The ERT’s Zodiac-boat crews, operating in Wilson and neighboring Guadalupe County, altogether brought in 24 people and two dogs.

Wearing a wetsuit for 18 straight hours probably was no big deal for somebody like Capt. Bailey, the former SEAL. But it was a new experience for this bubba.

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