Fire crew honored for saving man trapped under tree during Hurricane Ida

Published 12:10 am Saturday, November 13, 2021

LAPLACE — More than 800 people were rescued amid perilous conditions when Hurricane Ida bore down on St. John the Baptist Parish, but Fire Chief Cain Dufrene said one call presented challenges like no other.

Firefighters were forced to make decisions no human being would ever want to be faced with after a 911 call alerted crews to a subject pinned under a fallen tree inside of his trailer. Weather conditions were quickly deteriorating as Ida’s eye wall closed in on the River Parishes with wind speeds exceeding 130 miles per hour.

Officials had already made the call to suspend emergency response until it became safe to resume mercy operations. Since the 911 call came from an area close to the Emergency Operations Center, a fire crew ventured into the storm to see if a quick rescue could be performed before the weather worsened.

“Upon arriving at the location, it was quickly realized that this was not going to be an easy assignment,” Dufrene said. “After working tirelessly to free the subject who was trapped under an extremely large tree, the difficult call had to be made to terminate the effort for the safety of all personnel and to return to the station to ride out what would arguably be the worst storm in parish history.”

The firefighters were wracked with guilt as they returned to the EOC to ride out the storm, while the young man’s family stayed by his side.

Once the all clear was given to resume rescue operations, the crew returned to the scene to find the location had been totally transformed. Fallen trees and powerlines blocked personnel and equipment from accessing the scene. The fire crew resorted to shuttling equipment on foot and with an ATV to bring resources to the trapped subject. The crew began to methodically chop the tree to ensure no additional pressure would be placed on the young man, while also taking precautions to keep the tree from falling on him as pieces were removed.

Once the man was successfully removed from under the tree, firefighters administered special care and used the ATV to transport him to a nearby medical facility.

“This crew’s ability to overcome the uncommon challenges presented on that day, resulting in a successful outcome, is a direct result of the knowledge, teamwork and the sheer determination exhibited by all of the members. It resulted in a life being saved,” Dufrene said.

The following crew members were recognized with the Meritorious Service Award during this week’s Parish Council meeting in LaPlace: District Chief Daniel Perret, District Chief Damon Lewis, Captain Nicholas Saale, Captain Travis Etie, Firefighter/Operator Sean Falcon, Firefighter/Operator Nicholas Adams, Firefighter/Operator Chelsea Roudeze, Firefighter/Operator Michael Whitcomb and Firefighter/Operator Fabian Herrera.

Captain Nicholas Saale received special recognition for his expertise in tree removal, which helped firefighters successfully relieve pressure without letting the tree fall on the individual.

Dufrene said the tree rescue was a testament to what St. John Fire Services is all about.

“Each day, the men and women of the St. John Office of Fire Services go out and perform in a manner that far exceeds the expectations of a fire department our size. We task our firefighters to be medics, rescue techs, hazmat techs, educators, electricians, investigators and, of course, firefighters, just to name a few tasks that they have to perform,” Dufrene said.

Call volume increased by 115% in the weeks following Hurricane Ida as firefighters responded to calls of carbon monoxide alarms, gas leaks from generators and the occasional house fire. Fire personnel went door-to-door throughout St. John Parish to hand out water, ice, MREs, remove trees and assist residents with accessing their homes. Fire Services additionally assisted the parish with operating distribution sites and clearing roadways.

Some of the men and women had to be forced to take a few hours off after working seven days without rest.

Councilwoman Tammy Houston said the heroic activities of the Fire Department prevented loss of life during and after the storm.

“Because of your heroism, we did not have tragedies. We did not lose lives. For that, this whole parish cannot thank you enough,” she said.

Councilman Michael Wright was in the EOC when the call came in about the subject trapped under the tree. As the fire crew ventured into the storm, Wright didn’t know what the outcome would be. What he did know was the St. John firefighters would give it their best, and he was relieved to learn the man was successfully rescued.

Council Chair Kurt Becnel remarked that he felt like “a kid in a candy store” because he had the pleasure of being in the presence of heroes.

Parish President Jaclyn Hotard is proud of what the Office of Fire Services accomplishes day in and day out, and she is confident in saying that St. John Parish has one of the best fire departments in the state.

“You put yourself in harm’s way to save someone else who you didn’t even know. It’s a remarkable thing that couldn’t be praised enough. As a parish president speaking on behalf of our community, I’m forever grateful,” Hotard said.