On March 25, a sunny day after several days of rain, the Apex Fire Department swift water rescue team was called out to help the North Chatham Volunteer Fire Department (NCVFD) rescue two stranded kayakers on the Haw River.
While the boaters were rescued, the firefighters themselves experienced the worst of what the river had to offer. Soon, the firefighters were scrambling to rescue two of their own.
The firefighters who performed rescue operations for their fellow officers were recognized at the May 15 Apex Town Council meeting.
Apex firefighters regularly perform rescue operations on the Haw River and in and around Jordan Lake. Apex was the first and only water rescue team in Wake County until 2006, when Raleigh’s team was formed. The Apex swift water rescue team remains the only dive team in Wake County.
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Apex Fire Chief Mark Haraway said that the Haw River was just under flood stage on March 25.
“History has shown that when the river comes up, kayakers and canoeists like to get on the river,” he said. “But that day, the Haw River Canoe Association had posted warnings to stay off the river.”
When his swift water rescue team was called out, he said, the rescue did not look any more challenging than what his firefighters had faced in the past.
“The Haw River is full of hazards like rocks and debris. And it can be either very shallow or very fast moving,” Haraway said.
At the scene, Apex firefighters Lt. Kevin Butts and Engineer Jody Paxton were assigned with NCVFD Lt. Eddie Freeman to the backup boat. While the first rescue boat recovered the stranded boaters, Butts, Paxton and Freeman’s boat was caught in a current and swept under a strainer, knocking Paxton and Freeman from the boat.
Butts worked to sound a “mayday” signal and pull Freeman back into the boat, but he was at the mercy of the river. Debris churned up by the current had sheared off part of the motor.
By the time Butts and Freeman began drifting towards Moose Jam Falls, an advanced level whitewater, Paxton was nowhere in sight.
The commander in charge, NCVFD Chief John Strowd, immediately contacted the South Orange Rescue Squad for assistance.
When the team found Paxton, he was clinging to a tree, unable to reach the shore.
The teams coordinated their efforts and rescued Paxton after he had been in the water close to an hour and a half.
He was protected from hypothermia by his dry suit, typically worn by firefighters who perform swift water rescues. The suit, which leaves only the head exposed, and the firefighters’ training were vital to the rescue.
“Going into a situation, it’s like second nature,” said Paxton, who has been with the Apex Fire Department for nearly 15 years. “But in this business, it’s a learning-on-the-job type thing. You can’t predict what will happen.”
Both Haraway and Strowd praised their team members for their professionalism and high levels of training. Several firefighters who responded on March 25 are swift water rescue instructors.
With Memorial Day weekend kicking off boating season on area waterways, Strowd reminded boaters to educate themselves.
“Inexperienced boaters out looking for an adventure may not realize that the Haw River fluctuates so much,” he said. “Both rivers and boating clubs post information about the conditions and the forecast. Let your level of experience inform your journey.”