Taking on the Water
When streets flood or someone’s in danger on the Potomac River, a team of specially trained Montgomery County firefighters answers the call
Floodwater was rising above the guardrails on a stretch of the Clara Barton Parkway near the Beltway on the morning of July 8 as Capt. Mike Stream and three other Montgomery County firefighters waded into the swirling brown current. Ahead of them, they could see several stranded cars. Two drivers yelled and waved, one standing up through the sunroof of her white car, its back end bobbing in the rushing water. Several yards beyond her car, a man in an orange Camaro was also waving for help. Another driver had managed to escape her red SUV and stood on the Beltway access ramp.
In less than 60 minutes during rush hour, 3 to 6 inches of rain had fallen throughout the county, quickly overwhelming storm drains and creeks, causing flash flooding on roads, and stranding drivers, sometimes in swiftly moving water like the current coursing across the parkway. Since about 7:30 a.m., members of the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service Swift Water Rescue Team had been responding to dozens of reports of stranded motorists. Stream’s crew had passed by the area just minutes before it flooded as they headed north for a call in Carderock. They were on their way back to Fire Station 10 in Bethesda when another unit radioed about the stranded cars on the parkway.
After assessing the situation—even an SUV can be swept away in just 2 feet of moving water, team members say—the rescuers, wearing black waterproof suits, life vests and red helmets, sloshed toward the stranded drivers. After helping one driver out of her car and walking her through the water to higher ground on the Beltway ramp, Stream and firefighter Rob Rogers headed back into the current toward the woman in the white car. The water kept rising, hitting waist-level as they helped the woman open her car door and get out just as her car began floating away. Holding onto her between them, the men fought the current as the three headed to safety.
“It’s really difficult to make forward progress, even just to maintain what you have. Every time you step, it almost feels like you’re going to be washed away,” Stream, 44, recalls.
Once the woman was on safe ground, Stream and Rogers headed toward the Camaro, where two other crew members were struggling to remove the man from the car’s tight confines. As Stream and Rogers held on to the car to keep it from floating away, the others finally maneuvered the man out through the driver’s side window.
“We let go, and the car floated a few feet and submerged almost instantly,” says Stream, who estimates the water at that location soon rose to a depth of about 8 feet. “It went deep fast. I have not seen water rise that quickly in a long time.”
Meanwhile, a silver SUV, which was too far away for the rescuers to reach, floated down the parkway and under the Beltway overpass to a spot where the water was lower and another crew was able to get to the driver.
Ten minutes after the rescuers had arrived, the stranded motorists were safe. Another crew had launched an inflatable boat and searched the floodwater, making sure no one else was stranded. Nobody was injured, but Stream, a five-year veteran of the team, knows that timing was everything that day. “Had we not been where we were, I’m sure it would have been a different outcome for them,” he says.