FREMONT — They’re being hailed as “The Magnificent Seven.”
But first responders weren’t considering platitudes as they waited last week 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 stranded 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 floodwaters, 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 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. 30, but had to pull back because of floodwaters.
“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 County Road 27, figuring they had 2 miles to go.
Everything went well until they reached the area of County Road 28 and U Boulevard.
Wind gusts had reached 40 to 50 mph and the men faced 2- to 3-foot or larger white-capped waves.
“We got swamped with a wave," Osterloh said. "It went really bad, really quick.”
The second boat had gone to retrieve the first group when it flipped on its side.
Osterloh reported by radio that the two boats were sunk and all personnel were in the water.
“I told them to stand by and I’d check conditions of all the people,” he said.
“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.”
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 the best, and try to find a tree or anything we could have grabbed onto.”
McPherson contacted emergency management officials, asking for a helicopter, and the Nebraska National Guard sent a Black Hawk from Columbus.
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.
Kreifels and Litchenberg, the two who weren’t wearing wet suits, were the first to be airlifted.
Osterloh hoped he could hang on long enough to get 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.
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,” he said.
The men were flown to Fremont Municipal Airport. From there, rescue squads took them 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.
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 of the Fremont Fire Department.
Tawney knew Osterloh and the others had been through a lot, but their help was needed for more calls.
“I had a big 6-by-6 truck that we were using to rescue people and they called and they needed it immediately,” Osterloh said.
So he went out.
“We haven’t stopped,” he said of the firefighters 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 once highway access to and from town was restored. 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.”
More photos and video from flood-ravaged areas
Nebraska City aerial
Operation Prairie Hay Drop photos
The #NEGuard has been supporting the ongoing response in Eastern Nebraska following massive flooding on the state’s river systems which began a week ago and caused catastrophic damage to the state’s infrastructure and agriculture.— NE National Guard (@NENationalGuard) March 21, 2019
(3/3)#NebraskaFlood #NebraskaStrong pic.twitter.com/N4zQ2zu2Zx
Missouri River at Nebraska 2/I-29
View of the Platte/Missouri
Edge of Offutt
North Bend ovation
Pence with rescuers
Americans like Brad Brown & his airboat co-pilot Jake Rohr are the heart of the heartland. Brad & Jake have been helping victims of the flooding & delivering much needed supplies. Grateful for their service & ALL the volunteers & emergency personnel helping Nebraskans in need! pic.twitter.com/l2PxhwX6a4— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) March 20, 2019
Lincoln help for Santee Sioux
Buying out the bleach
Help from North Platte
@GitRDoneLarry— Chandra Laine (@ChandraLaine) March 20, 2019
We are a group of volunteers gathering donations in North Platte Ne . We sent one semi to Fremont. We have two more semi trailers almost full.Get our 4th semi on Thursday. To the people, Your battle is our battle. We stand with you. We got you! ❤ #NebraskaStrong pic.twitter.com/wsDRTr0Tr9
Help for farmers
Thanks to generious donations to the Disaster Relief Fund, we were able to deliver supplies to farmers along the Niobrara River. We brought them milk replacement for calves and medicine. Help us do more good by donating to the fund: https://t.co/sFi40cxnwG #nebraskastrong pic.twitter.com/dAGUYDKFpo— Nebraska Farm Bureau (@NEFarmBureau) March 20, 2019
Niobrara ice chunks
Sandbagging at Cooper
Pence in Nebraska
Visited the relief shelter at Elkhorn Middle School today to let the Nebraska flood victims know @POTUS and I are WITH them & to thank the incredible military personnel & @RedCross volunteers helping those impacted. THANK YOU! pic.twitter.com/ZA6X7qfeSi— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) March 20, 2019
I-680 Mormon bridge
Sasse surveying damage
Latest from NEMA
Repairing the roads
Beer fridge was stocked!
For those of you that don't know, our state of #Nebraska is going through record flooding. Sometimes though, the world sends you a break. These guys went to their #DuckCamp and found a fully-stocked #BeerFridge. #NebraskaStrong #Flood2019 pic.twitter.com/t8FvdqVQ3g— Fat Boy Wild Game (@gameseasonings) March 19, 2019
Flying in supplies
The Nebraska flooding is so heartbreaking but the whole state has stepped up to help. I can’t be more proud of my brother for flying his plane to Fremont with baby supplies to help. Proud to be from Nebraska #NebraskaFlood #NebraskaStrong @GMA pic.twitter.com/vFZVDj6lm6— Michelle Galles (@WakefieldFCCLA) March 19, 2019
Offutt before and after
I joined the Fremont National Guard in Nebraska today to get an aerial view of flooding impact as we traveled to thank volunteers in Fremont, NE, address a community meeting in Niobrara, and receive a briefing in Lynch.#NebraskaFlood | #NebraskaStrong | #FremontStrong pic.twitter.com/piEXa7TpIq— Scott (@FirstMinScott) March 19, 2019