As his boat got swept away into the woods with floodwaters rushing in, all Patrick Avallon could see was the man he and his team were sent there to rescue.
“Seeing this guy cling to a tree right in front of us … helps you to focus and stay calm,” said Avallon, who along with his older brother Captain Alex Avallon, Chief Engineer Dave Lemek and Assistant Fire Chief James Anders III comprised a . “You just can’t let him get swept away and drown.”
Indeed they did not. The team, initially believed to be in need of rescuing, worked to save themselves before quickly leading the motorist to safety.
For their brave efforts, presented the Avallon brothers and Lemek - who had manned the boat - with rescue citations during Monday night’s Hatboro Borough Council meeting. Unit citations were also presented to the three volunteers, along with 21 other firefighters and three fire police who were on duty for 30 hours straight during the storm. In all, they responded to 25 calls, six of which required the rescue of 15 people, one puppy, one dog and one cat from flood waters, according to Gordon.
Gordon commended all of the volunteers for their efforts and noted that the marine team "put aside" their own fears for the safety of others.
When the Avallon brothers and Lemek - with Anders acting as the eyes on the ground - responded to Davisville Road in Upper Moreland to rescue a stranded motorist, Anders said the vehicle’s roof was all that was visible.
The rest, like the roadway it was straddled across, was covered by water, Anders said. About 50 feet beyond, in the woods, was the driver, clinging helplessly to a tree as floodwaters raged on.
The plan was to steer the boat toward the man and throw him a rope. But, Mother Nature had another idea.
“The boat took on water and hit a guardrail or something underneath. There’s dumpsters, there’s trees, there’s logs,” Anders said. “It looked like the boat went under. I sent out a mayday.”
Meanwhile, as other units responded to the overnight call of what was initially believed to be firefighters attempting to save the stranded driver and in need of rescue themselves, Lemek and the Avallon brothers had tied themselves to a tree and were in the process of rescuing the man.
“It all just happened so fast. All of a sudden, we got swept away in the boat. The next thing you know we got stuck in the woods with water rushing in,” recalled Patrick Avallon. “We just reverted back to our training. Staying calm was a big thing. Eventually we were able to get the guy to trust us.”
But, it was the mayday call that spread even as far as People magazine, which Lemek said phoned him for an interview. After hearing how the heroes saved themselves, Lemek said the publication declined to pursue a story.
Fueled by an adrenaline rush, coupled with the extensive marine training the crew had accomplished helped in staving off panic.
“The three of us and the victim were pretty much in danger,” Lemek said. “Another four to five guys put their lives on the line to try to save us.”
While in retrospect Anders said his team didn’t need saving, he would have handled it again the same way if faced with the same circumstances.
“Without sending out that mayday I would’ve gotten no help. Time is crucial,” Anders said, adding that he had, at that point, lost all visual of the team. “Did they need help out? Yes. Did they need a rescue? No.”
And while it may not have been necessary, Patrick Avallon said it meant a lot to see the “brotherhood” among firefighters put into action.
“It was nice to see the rapid response of all the fire companies,” he said. “The brotherhood that people talk about is not just a word.”
In fact, according to Anders, it’s a “bond” formed out of extinguishing fires, saving lives and putting one’s self in risk in the process.
“You kind of have to know what the other person can do and what they’re thinking,” Anders said. “After you work with somebody for so long you don’t have to talk.”
In those instances, actions – whether it be a man clinging to a tree, or teams of volunteers called in to assist – speak louder than words. Aside from the danger he faced during last month’s water rescue, Patrick Avallon, a firefighter of five years, said he remembers one other equally “close call.”
He and his brother were fighting a basement fire on Monument Avenue on Christmas Eve.
“The floor started to go down on us,” Avallon recalled. “My brother actually pulled me up.”