Search…rescue…repeat

Tom Chickos, in Marion, S.C. Photo courtesy of Tom Chickos

By Thomas S. Chickos
I am a private criminal investigator by trade, and have been for 20 years, but I have been a volunteer with Brother Wolf Animal Rescue since 2009.

I deployed to Marion, S.C., on 10/09/2016 and returned to Asheville late 10/15/2016. This was my first deployment in search-and-rescue with our rapid-response team. We, along with other agencies, were able to rescue dozens of stranded animals.
I was on the water all week with my rescue partner, Eric Phelps. Our mission was getting the boats into the water first thing in the morning and rescue until almost dark each day. I have always considered myself to be both physically and mentally tough. This mission would change my mind.

We received a list of calls for service from our command center. This list came from people who were not able to get their animals out before the flood and were desperate to reunite with their loved ones without the means to get to them. Most people said that the water rose so fast that they themselves almost didn’t make it out. Nichols was the area we conducted search and rescue.

On the first day we fully loaded the boats with animal crates, food and water and proceeded into the floodwaters to begin our search. Sounds simple, right? That is what I thought. Wow, was I wrong. You have to start about a mile out of town and make your way in. That requires you to drag a boat that is loaded with supplies by a rope on foot through all the areas that are not covered with water or with shallow floodwater.

We soon learned that the homes outside of town were all underwater as well. We could see the loss right away. Most people lost everything. It was heartbreaking passing homes and vehicles destroyed, and there was nothing we could do. By the time we got into town it was clear that the entire city was underwater. Nothing was spared.

We began searching the homes on our list. Many were in areas that were hard to get boats into because of fences and debris, so we had to abandon the boats and jump in the water. The only problem with getting into the water was that you are now chest deep in fuel oil, gasoline, human waste, garbage and God knows what else. That is the easy part. Then you have to get into a home that is full of black water, floating debris and heavy objects that you can’t see under the water. You then have to somehow search the entire house for the animal that is terrified and hiding. Once you locate the animal, they don’t know you, so now they are even more afraid. But now we need to get that animal out of the water, into a crate and get them, and ourselves, to safety.

You do this house to house all over town, all day every day, until your mission is over. Honestly, the hardest part is having to quit for the day. Knowing that you can’t get to all of them and that they are going to have to try to survive one more night, alone. Some of them don’t….

Dogs, cats, horses, goats, chickens, snakes, turtles, a lizard and many more were saved. It was truly rewarding but mentally and physically exhausting at the same time. I would absolutely do it all over again.

Thomas S. Chickos lives in Asheville.

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