COCKE COUNTY, Tenn. (WATE) — It began as an idea last summer, but it could be the reason one woman and four children are alive today. The Cocke County Swift Water Rescue Team, along with several area agencies, successfully pulled all five to safety Thursday night.
Videos posted to Cocke County Emergency Management Agency’s Facebook page show the precision of their newly formed specialized unit. The 911 call came in around 5 p.m. Thursday. A spokesperson for the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department confirmed said the driver was stranded on an island in the French Broad River.
Normally, he noted, the water is low enough for a truck or SUV to easily drive through. This time it wasn’t. Later, crews would carry all five, including one infant, away from the rushing water one by one.
It was a job well done, especially for their first mission.
The county has had a water rescue unit for less than a week. Volunteer members for both the county and city teams just completed their training last Sunday. Walter Cross, a CCSWR team leader, and captain with the Grassy Fork Volunteer Fire Department said that training paid off.
“Our guys all felt ready,” he said. “They were willing and able, and they proved it. Excellent job. Fantastic job. These four kids and this one adult, they’re safe today because of it.”
County leaders saw the need for the specialized rescue group more than a year ago. County Mayor Crystal Ottinger said having three rivers run through the county is both a blessing and a curse. While it brings economic benefit, via tourists taking advantage of the fishing and rafting opportunities, it also brings risks and sometimes tragedy.
“Along the water, the roads are very narrow,” she said. “We’ve had vehicles, you know, drive off the road or in flooding. They didn’t realize and get swept, so it was really important to the EMA director and me to really focus on getting this team and having some plans in place.”
The timing was potentially lifesaving, but it’s no coincidence to Deputy Randy Forbes, who also serves as a CCSWRT team leader.
“I don’t really believe in luck. I believe this is an ordained, a preordained situation, in which we were called to do the job that was done yesterday and we’re ready to be called again,” Forbes said.
Ottinger applauded the volunteer members for completing their training as soon as possible. She noted they could have chosen to finish their watercourses next year when the water would be warmer. That scenario could have yielded a different result for the five stranded Thursday night.
“To know that they weren’t going to wait, they were ready, they knew that if they waited something might happen … it was a very proud time,” she added.
Ottinger also credit County Commission with funding the initiative, including the necessary equipment and training required.
Joe Esway, Cocke County Emergency Management Agency director and director of CCSWRT, reminded drivers to always turn around if the road ahead looks questionable.
“Water is an incredible force of nature. Water can heal us. Water can hurt us. Water can kill us, and you have to be respectful of it,” he said.
Sheriff’s deputies, Cocke County Fire crews, rescue squads from Cocke and Jefferson counties, as well as Morristown also responded to the rescue. The city’s swift water rescue team also pitched in, making it their first successful mission, too.
“The idea was that because we’ve trained together, we’ve worked together, we were going to facilitate this rescue together,” Esway said.
Esway said the team is still in need of a boat, specifically an 18-foot, tunnel-hulled, all-welded, one with a jet propulsion motor to help navigate the county’s unique waterways.