Updated: September 16, 2013 at 7:31 am
Being the only team in Colorado Springs that can tackle dangerous rescues - diving into raging floodwaters, running into buildings about to collapse in flames and pulling people out of mangled vehicles with massive tools - makes for very strong ties and extraordinary stories. It also requires relentless training, a demanding work pace, pushing endurance and dedication to the limit.
The Colorado Springs Fire Department's Heavy Rescue Unit at station 17 is the only one of its kind in the city. It's tasked with handling extreme rescues and recovery operations over 200 square miles.
On Aug. 12, when 17-year-old Colorado Springs resident Rose Hammes disappeared during heavy rains that turned Sand Creek into a raging torrent, the heavy rescue unit was tasked with finding her.
"It was a tough recovery mission, because those creek beds are horrible to get caught in," Lt. Aaron McConnellogue said. "It took us six hours to cover three miles. It was a very wide area to search. There were spots where the water was well above our heads, and all kinds of debris gets carried away by the water."
McConnellogue was there when the team found Hammes' clothing north of Galley Road, then her body under a bridge at Platte Avenue, west of Wooten Road, nearly three miles downstream from where she'd first gone missing.
"Most of our memorable stuff isn't very happy," McConnellogue said.
The unit's 24 full-time firefighters have to train and specialize in nine types of rescue mission: high angle, swift water, dive rescue and recovery, collapse, auto extrication, confined space, ice rescue, trench and rapid intervention.
Every member has to pledge a minimum of five years in the unit to be considered, because the amount of time and money that goes into training and equipping each of them is an investment.
"You have to enjoy training, because it's nonstop. Your personality has to be stronger, more defined. There's a lot of type-A people in this unit," paramedic Tim Krantz said. "We're strong-headed and stubborn. We get the job done."
Anything outside the norm and dangerous warrants calling out the heavy rescue unit.
On Aug. 27, they saved a man who became trapped under a boulder the size of a VW Bug near Broadmoor Bluffs Drive.
"It took us more than an hour to get him out. His legs were caught inside this huge hole, tangled up in a ladder and a massive rock (was) on top of him," McConnellogue said. "But that's one of the things we love about this job, the diversity. You never know what you're walking into."
Every firefighter in the unit has to put themselves in precarious positions to know what it feels like to be a victim and to build trust with teammates. For high-angle rescues, they will tie themselves up and dangle 30 or more feet in the air, allowing the rest of the unit to bring them down to safety.
"Everybody's gotta be a victim, go through the fear and sense of desperation, because it keeps us grounded," McConnellogue said. "Every member of the team needs to know that we are all there for each other, we all got each other's backs."
They were there July 10 when a torrential downpour washed motorists off U.S. 24 by Cave of the Winds. A woman nearly lost her life, miraculously getting herself out of the floodwaters and onto solid ground, where rescuers were able to help her.
"Wherever the water receded, she got herself out and her entire body was covered with road rash, her skin was all torn up," Krantz said. "With the way the water was flowing, she was lucky she stayed on the road and didn't get washed off the cliff."
"Risk a lot to save a lot" is one of the unit's mantras. Some situations are much too horrible to handle and sometimes there's no one to rescue, only bodies to recover. Drawing the line where the risk is too great for the rescue team can be difficult, but a positive attitude keeps them going.
"We will do everything we can and we are always hopeful, we have a real can-do attitude," McConnellogue said. "We will take risks for a live victim, but we all want to go home to our families at the end of the shift. If a person isn't salvageable, we won't risk our own lives."
McConnellogue has been a firefighter in Colorado Springs for 20 years , with 9 1/2 years in the heavy rescue unit. As challenging as the ride has been, he says he's not even close to being done.
"I love doing this every day," he said. "Every time we go in and rescue someone, that's what it's all about for me."