They’re being hailed as “The Magnificent Seven.”
But first responders weren’t considering platitudes as they waited for help in the dark, icy waters of the Elkhorn River.
Seven men went out in airboats Thursday night after getting a call to rescue a family with a young child.
During the rescue attempt, wind and waves sank one of the boats and tipped over the other, sending the men into the freezing, debris-filled river.
As their body temperatures dropped and they waited for help in the chest-high water, the men worked to develop a self-rescue plan while minutes flew by.
“I don’t think we would have lasted four hours out there,” said Rich Osterloh, a Fremont firefighter and EMT.
Fremont Rural Fire Chief Wade McPherson told how the situation began. He said a call came in Thursday evening about a family of four adults and a 2-year-old child trapped in a house on U Boulevard between Fremont and Arlington.
Rescuers first tried to reach the house, just off the Elkhorn River, via U.S. Highway 30, but had to move back due to flood waters over the roadway.
“The family was in desperation,” McPherson said. “They kept calling, saying that a wall in their basement collapsed and their front porch had been ripped off and the house was tilting. All I could envision was that the house was going to be swept away down the Elkhorn River with the entire family in it.”
A couple of airboaters volunteered use of their watercraft to get to the house and Osterloh said firefighters at least hoped to rescue the 2-year-old girl.
Osterloh was in the lead boat along with Cedar Bluffs Assistant Fire Chief Chris Lichtenberg and Assistant Rescue Squad Chief Matt Baker and Logan Kahler of the Fremont Rural Fire Department.
In the second boat was driver Wayne Kreifels and Fremont firefighters Rick Schutt and Nick Morris.
The men put the boats in the water at about County Road 27, figuring they had 2 miles to go.
Everything went well until they reached the area at about County Road 28 and U.
Wind gusts had reached 40 to 50 mph and the men faced 2 to 3 foot or larger white-capped waves.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what sank the first boat,” Osterloh said. “We got swamped with a wave. It went really bad, really quick. We couldn’t abort the mission, because it just happened so fast.”
The second boatload of men had gone to retrieve the first group, when it flipped on its side in the water.
“I couldn’t see the other people at that time,” Osterloh said. “So I had three rescuers on the other boat that I was worried about.”
Osterloh made a report that the two boats were sunk and all personnel were in the water.
“I told them to standby and I’d check conditions of all the people,” he said. “They finally came up and I saw them all.”
Before that, Osterloh wasn’t sure if someone had become pinned under one of the boats.
“Everybody was OK,” Osterloh remembered. “We did have one guy hanging on the side of the boat and he did not have a wet suit on. He was one of the boat drivers.”
Osterloh and other firefighters considered a self-rescue plan.
All but two of the men—Kreifels and Lichtenberg—were wearing wetsuits.
“If the water came up more, we were going to huddle together the best we could, because our wetsuits would make us float to an extent,” Osterloh said.
The men thought they’d try to make their way to a barn about an eighth of a mile away.
“They wanted us to try for the railroad tracks, but that really wasn’t an option,” he said, adding that water was running through a deep ditch nearby and they faced the danger of being sucked into a culvert.
So the men considered heading toward the barn, but the current was strong and Osterloh said they’d later learn the water, which carried debris, logs and ice, only got deeper east of where they were.
“We didn’t have a lot of options,” he said. “But we did devise a plan that we were all going to stay together as long as we could, hope for best, and try to find a tree or anything we could have grabbed onto.”
McPherson contacted the Region 5-6 Emergency Manager and said a helicopter was needed. Other Fremont rural firefighters also worked to locate a helicopter.
The Nebraska Army National Guard sent a Black Hawk helicopter from Columbus to airlift the seven men from the water.
Video on Facebook shows a single bright light from the helicopter, shining on the rapidly rippling waves. A flashlight beam can be seen, too, and gusty winds and the sound of the helicopter can be heard.
“It was a Godsend,” Osterloh said. “Then reality set in after that and we watched the first guy go up.”
Kreifels and Litchenberg, the two who weren’t wearing wetsuits, were the first to be airlifted.
Osterloh hoped he could hang on long enough to get up into the helicopter, because his hands and feet were so cold. He couldn’t feel his fingers and the cable he’d need to grab onto was small.
“But we all did it,” he said.
All seven were airlifted to safety.
Osterloh had high praise for the National Guard helicopter team.
“I can’t tell the National Guard guys that came and got us—these were young kids who flew this helicopter—how thankful me and my family are because we might not have come out of this,” Osterloh said, estimating the men probably were in the water for two hours.
Litchenberg expressed similar sentiments.
“We were in a very bad situation and we will be forever indebted to the National Guard that came and got us with the Black Hawk,” Litchenberg said.
The men were flown to Fremont Municipal Airport. From there, rescue squads took the men to Methodist Fremont Health.
“We had an army of rescue squads,” Osterloh remembered. “I think there was seven or eight. There were agencies from everywhere there.”
At the hospital, the shivering men were treated for hypothermia.
“Our body temperatures were really low. I think one guy’s was clear down to 94 or 95 (degrees),” he said.
Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Osterloh said the men were given IVs with warm fluids and special blankets.
“The medical staff at the hospital was absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “They took care of us very well.”
In the meantime, the Black Hawk helicopter went back to the scene to try to help the family.
“From what I understand, they declined transport because they couldn’t bring their pets and stayed in the residence until the next day when I was told the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission rescued them with an airboat in the day. The winds were calmer and conditions were a little better,” McPherson said.
Work was far from over for Osterloh and other first responders.
At 2 a.m. Friday—just hours after his rescue—Osterloh got a call from Capt. Pat Tawney at the Fremont Fire Department.
Tawney knew Osterloh and the others had been through a lot, but their help was needed for more rescue calls.
“I had a big 6-by-6 truck that we were using to rescue people and they called and they needed it immediately,” he said.
So he went out.
“We haven’t stopped,” he said of the firefighters on Tuesday. “I think in that whole five or six days I got about seven hours of sleep. None of us firemen have had a day off. We have been to our max.”
Osterloh estimates that hundreds of people have been rescued—with three or four rescues taking place at the same time.
To top it off, a fire occurred in the Regency II Mobile Home Park on Monday.
Omaha firefighters did come in to help on Tuesday. Osterloh said Fremont Rural firefighters have been great and so have Army Reservists.
What does McPherson think of the seven men who risked their lives?
“I would call them ‘The Magnificent Seven,’” he said. “I’m glad things ended the way they did. It could have been very tragic. I’m very thankful for their services and what they did. We were very fortunate.”