By Don Nelson
For more photos, see gallery. Members of Okanogan County’s Swiftwater Rescue Team are used to dangerous situations involving intricate coordination to save those in distress.
What they’re not used to is a big audience.
Last Saturday (May 31), several dozen spectators watched from the Highway 20 bridge as rescue team members plucked a dog from the bed of a pickup truck that had inadvertently rolled into the Chewuch River from the parking lot behind the Tenderfoot store in Winthrop.
With the aid of guidelines anchored to the river banks, rescue team members Vikki Buzzard and Ottis Buzzard maneuvered an inflatable raft to the back of the Ford F-150’s bed and rescued Jessie, a border collie-heeler mix owned by Paul Picolet of Twisp, at about 1 p.m.
They got a huge round of applause from the crowd on the bridge.
Picolet’s truck had rolled into the river at about 11 a.m., drifted downstream under the Highway 20 bridge and came to rest on a big rock in rapid water just east of the bridge.
Picolet was not in the truck when it rolled into the river, but Jessie endured the adventure with relative calm. The dog waited in the truck, clearly nervous but not showing any inclination to leave, while the rescue team arrived, strategized how to reach the truck and retrieve the dog safely, and prepared their gear.
Dog and owner were happy to reunite after the Buzzards brought Jessie to shore. She shook off her coat and cavorted on the riverbank, but stopped short of bounding back into the water.
“Nobody usually sees what we do,” Vikki Buzzard said, adding that it was interesting to watch herself in a video of the rescue that was shot by Zane Stanbery and has been seen by thousands of people around the world on YouTube.
While the Buzzards were in the boat, rescue team members were on the shore, manning the ropes attached to the raft. They included Marke Mattson, an EMT, Bill McAdow and Mark Crum with Okanogan County Fire District 6, and Michael Blake with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office. Vikki Buzzard is a paramedic with Aero Methow Rescue Service; Ottis, her husband, is a deputy with the sheriff’s office. Both are trained and experienced in all kinds of outdoor rescues.
Vikki Buzzard said the first thing the team had to do was size up the situation to work out the logistics — with the rescuers’ safety a prime consideration. Other questions the team considered: What’s the danger underwater? How stable is the truck? Where will the rope anchors go? What’s our escape route?
“Every scene is different,” Buzzard said. The river presented a “dynamic world that is always changing” It helped, she said, that team members were familiar with that part of the river — even the rock that the truck was stuck on.
“We know our plan,” Buzzard said. “We don’t reinvent the wheel.”
Team communications are either verbal or, as was the case Saturday while they worked in and near a noisy river, with hand signals.
A couple of people offered to help, Buzzard said, but were politely turned away for good reasons: the team is made up of people who have worked together and trust each other, and because of the liability factor of getting someone else involved.
“We have the equipment and the personnel,” she said. “We don’t want to put people in harm’s way.”
From truck to raft
After the raft was maneuvered into place behind the truck, Buzzard said her next move was to assess the dog’s condition and behavior. She beckoned to Jessie, but the dog cowered at the other end of the truck bed. That left Buzzard no option but to get into the truck’s bed, where she found that Jessie was not aggressive and seemed scared. “As soon as I picked her up, she plastered herself to me,” Buzzard said.
Next was the transfer from the truck to the raft, where Ottis Buzzard was waiting to take Jessie. At that point, Vikki Buzzard said, the presence of an audience was palpable. “We looked at each other and had the same thought,” she said. “Don’t drop the dog.” As soon as Ottis had Jessie, “she plastered herself against him,” Buzzard said.
The Buzzards carried a personal flotation device designed for dogs, but they didn’t use it because Picolet had told them Jessie is a good swimmer and dogs can become agitated when a PFD is used, Buzzard said.
Jessie was just fine in the raft as it was pulled to shore, Buzzard said.
After rescuing Jessie, the team waited for a super-size tow truck sent from Okanogan by Randy’s Towing to arrive. Then Ottis Buzzard took tow hooks and a cable out to the truck, which was hauled to shore in front the U.S. Forest Service building on the south bank.
The team finally left at about 3:30 p.m., Buzzard said.
The day after the rescue, Buzzard said, she saw Jessie in the bed of another truck Picolet was driving. “That’s her comfort zone,” she said.
This version of this story originally ran in the June 4, 2014 Methow Valley News. To see the original story as posted on our website May 31, 2014, see Dog rescued from truck that rolled into Chewuch River in Winthrop.
Reader Zane Stanbery was also on the scene and took this video that we are sharing with his permission: