After a double drowning 45 years ago, a group of locals decided to form the Hancock County Rescue Squad, and one of its original members says the helplessness of that drowning has led to decades of saved lives since then.
The squad formed after a car driven by Mike Couty struck a guardrail and ran off the road and into Blackford Creek. Couty and his passenger, Leslie Baker, were trapped inside. Locals helped search and the car was found more than 24 hours later, but the fact that there was no official entity in charge of the search led to many involved in that search to form the rescue squad.
“That was one of the tragedies that touched a lot of people in the county,” said Denis Wheatley, who was one of the original members of the squad and served as its captain for years later on.
“Marvin Payne was all energetic about getting a squad started,” he said.
Payne had helped lead the search for the car, which was found two days later, and led the forming of the group.
They had 25 members in the squad and they worked from their own homes and vehicles, at first without any radios or equipment.
“It was just a bunch of ordinary people that thought they might want to help their neighbor,” he said. “Of course our wives were involved too, because in situations like that you quite often need a woman’s touch. Because if it’s a woman involved we needed a woman there to represent and take care of her needs as well as we could.”
Many of the members were self-funded and they were notified of emergencies by phone.
“We got involved with the dispatcher and the dispatcher was the one that actually notified us,” he said. “At first he would call us and then we finally got some pagers and they functioned fairly well.
“Back then we never run any lights and sirens on anything. Of course we didn’t have them on our personal vehicles and that’s all we had at first,” he said.
Soon they got help from then-judge-executive Jim Fallin to get grants for some equipment, they got a location in a former road department garage in Hawesville, and in 1984 they even got their own new box truck.
Wheatley said he was enthusiastic about being on the rescue squad because he’d seen an equivalent group out of Indiana who came to help on river emergencies.
“When I worked on the ferry we had numerous people that got in the river,” he said. “And there was four or five men in the Tell City area that when something like that happened they would be there within 10 minutes with the equipment to get this body.”
And he himself got to see first hand that anyone can help if they are willing, like the time that he and another man were on the river bank and heard someone calling that someone had fallen in the river. The men went to get a skiff and headed out to see if they could find her.
“We went from there down at least 100 yards below where the ferry landed and this woman was face down in the river,” Wheatley said. “We pulled up beside of her and took off her dress and pulled up on her and she popped up like a cork.”
They pulled her to the dock and no one there was eager to try to revive her, so Wheatley tried to revive her with by slapping her on the back. Soon she was coughing and spitting up water, and the local doctor took over.
“And she lived, but she was gone as far as anybody would’ve known otherwise,” he said. “But that’s where I’ve found that you could help people.”
Over the years on the rescue squad Wheatley took part in many rescues, some more memorable than others. He remembers when another car ran off the road and overturned in water and locals had tried to rescue the men to no avail, but the rescue squad came with their equipment and were able to save them.
“There was no chance of life in that situation,” he said, “because they had tried everything in the world to get that vehicle out.”
Locals, a wrecker, a log truck, and a tractor were all hooked together trying to pull the car from under the bridge, he said, all while the two men were trapped inside at the water level, with one breathing through a rust hole in the floor.
“The one man had his head right against the floor of that vehicle with his nose sticking up in that hole. That’s how he was breathing,” he said.
While Carl Brandle, another rescue squad member, talked to the man to keep him calm, Wheatley used the jaws of life to begin cutting at that rust hole to try to open it up enough to get the man out.
He opened the hole to about 10 inches to one side and there was a floor mat in the car, bobbing up and down on the waves.
“I told them, I said don’t anybody touch that floor mat until we make sure that we’ve got all the edges where they won’t cut,” he said. “And when we rolled that back, it was the other man’s head.”
“The other man was under that floor mat,” he said. “I don’t know how he was breathing.”
“The EMTs at the time gave us a statement of 30 percent… the life in them was down to 30 percent,” he said. “They both survived, and if that’s not a miracle it doesn’t happen.”
Over the years the rescue squad got more and better equipment and more advanced training. Wheatley is now too old to be an active member, but he still sees the importance of it, and he believes it was founded with the correct intentions.
“I really believe that when the group got together to start this rescue squad, that they had the right purpose in mind,” he said. “They weren’t looking for publicity, they weren’t looking for notoriety. They were doing it because somebody was in trouble that couldn’t do it for themselves.”
By Dave Taylor