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Firefighters try to rescue overdue float trippers from Fort Leonard Wood
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (July 15, 2009) — Float trips can be fun, but not when the floaters start out late in the afternoon, don’t carry a cell phone, and don’t take precautions.

After a group of eight floaters from Fort Leonard Wood didn’t come back home by dark on Saturday, more than a dozen rescue personnel from the Waynesville and Crocker fire districts mounted a major rescue effort to locate them on the Gasconade River upstream from the Crocker Bridge on Highway 17. According to Lt. Mike Shempert of the Waynesville Rural Fire Protection District, the group included a 15-month-old and 3-year-old child and two pregnant women.

Waynesville firefighters began their work about 9 p.m., said Waynesville Deputy Chief Andy Baker, and quickly determined help would be needed from Crocker due to the condition of the river. Crocker firefighters then asked for additional help from the Tri-County Rural Fire Protection District in Richland, which had a boat available for use.

“We received the call and then called Crocker to start from their end because there were parts of the river that we couldn’t get to because of debris in the water,” Baker said. “During the floods, (the river) brought down a lot of tree limbs and moved a lot of boulders.”

Float trips often use large inner tubes or small boats that don’t displace enough water to get caught on river debris, but that’s not safe for a metal rescue boat that uses an outboard motor and travels at faster speeds that are unsafe for nighttime navigation where objects under the water surface can’t clearly be seen.

However, firefighters rapidly became concerned about a different type of hazard.

“We were going up the river and we kept seeing lightning and said, ‘Holy crap, is another storm coming in?’” Baker said. “The lightning was so strong from (a thunderstorm) down south that we could see it up here.”

Crocker firefighters moved east on the river and Waynesville firefighters moved west.

“We took our boat from the Crocker Bridge and went upstream about 2.5 miles at a very, very slow pace; the other end was making their way down and had gotten about a mile and a half when we got a call that somebody had told them they made it out of the water at Highway T,” Baker said.

That report turned out to be correct and the group of three Army specialists and five civilians made it out of the water safely.

However, Baker warned that the float trip could have ended much worse.

“Don’t do a float trip with little blow-up pool toys,” Baker said. “I wouldn’t even attempt a float trip with one of those little things.”

Baker said other key steps in planning for a float trip include making sure to allow enough time for the trip before nightfall and carrying a cell phone to alert rescuers in case of emergencies.

Waynesville Rural Fire Chief Doug Yurecko said cell phone service is possible on most rivers in Pulaski County, and packaging a cell phone in several layers of sealable plastic bags is a good way to prevent the phone from being damaged even if a floater capsizes.

It’s also important to check weather conditions, Yurecko said, and make sure the water isn’t flowing rapidly due to storms that may have happened a few days earlier.

Last summer, Waynesville firefighters had to rescue people from three float trips gone bad, Baker said, and that’s been typical in recent years with an average of three to four float trip rescues per summer.

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