A team of Sleaford firefighters were one of three specialist water rescue crews sent from Lincolnshire to assist after the floods in Cumbria last week.
After two solid days of rescuing residents from the submerged streets of Carlisle, the men have returned to tell tales of resilience and devastation.
Full-timers Chris Lowe, Colin Calam, Chris Jefferson, Mark Gardner and Steve Cross, with their motorboat and equipment, were mobilised at midnight on the Saturday after the heavy rains hit and it was declared a national incident. Chris Lowe said: “The journey up there was a challenge with high winds, floods, and overturned lorries and we got there by 4am on the Sunday.”
He said: “They had lost power and although the priority is to save lives the local services were aware they needed power back on where safe, so we were transporting electricians to substations that needed pumping out. When the power was restored, everyone’s house alarms went off.”
They were then set on to check streets to see who needed rescuing. They soon stopped a man from being swept away after he had tried to reach his home in waders and Chris said: “We were wearing dry suits and protection underneath, but came across a woman wandering around up to her chest in just leggings and a jumper, so we got her into the boat too.
“Locals had relocated valuables upstairs. At first they sat it out, but after a night with no electricity and minimal food they decided they needed to get out.”
The team were amazed by the depth of water in the streets - up to seven feet. Chris said: “We were travelling along in our boat, looking down on roofs of cars lying a foot under the surface.
They were co-ordinating with a range of services including all emergency services, the Army, the RNLI and the RSPCA dealing with animal welfare issues. Chris said: “It was just great to see every service working together as a big team.”
The team have seen action as part of the international UK Search and Rescue scheme, dealing with the tidal surge in Boston, floods in Berkshire, Devon, Somerset and Bosnia as well as the tsunami in Japan.
It was Steve Cross who had the brainwave of using fridges - which amazingly became buoyant - to float people through doors and into the waiting boats.
Chris said: “The water was so high we just used fridges floating about in houses. We even came across a wheelie bin in one. We removed the door off a fridge and then pushed it up to the stairs. They stepped in and then stepped out into the boat.”
The floating debris could be a hinderance too though, as floating furniture and carpets would block doors. They would probe the way ahead to avoid damaging the boat on garden hedges or railings and when on foot they used poles to probe ahead in case manhole covers had popped off leaving dangerous drops.
The crew did not stop until 9pm the first day and were back at it again at 4am the following morning, searching around 1,000 properties.
They were amazed by the stoicism and selflessness of the residents who would be passed on to shelter in churches, halls and hotels. An Indian takeaway owner was busy feeding the firefighters, while his new restaurant down the street was under water. Chris said grateful residents were keen to offer food and drink, to the point of going without themselves, but the men could not accept anything potentially contaminated by the flood water and when they returned home all gear had to be washed to remove a film of sewage from drains and fluids from submerged cars.