How 4 St. Charles firefighters saved stranded boaters, with 40 seconds to spare

  • From left, St. Charles fire Lt. David Chmelar and firefighter/paramedics Brandon Paus and Mike Pyzyna are honored during a city council meeting for their efforts to save three stranded boaters on the Fox River. Not shown is firefighter/paramedic Chad Tinsley.

      From left, St. Charles fire Lt. David Chmelar and firefighter/paramedics Brandon Paus and Mike Pyzyna are honored during a city council meeting for their efforts to save three stranded boaters on the Fox River. Not shown is firefighter/paramedic Chad Tinsley. Lauren Rohr | Staff Photographer

  • Boaters were rescued June 30 on the Fox River in St. Charles moments before their disabled boat went over the dam.

    Boaters were rescued June 30 on the Fox River in St. Charles moments before their disabled boat went over the dam. Courtesy of St. Charles Fire Department

  • The Fox River dam in St. Charles was the scene of a June 30 rescue, where crew members from the fire department's Truck 101 unit saved three stranded boaters.

    The Fox River dam in St. Charles was the scene of a June 30 rescue, where crew members from the fire department's Truck 101 unit saved three stranded boaters. Courtesy of Mark Rinaldi

 
 
Updated 8/26/2019 10:44 AM

Forty seconds.

That's the length of time that elapsed between the successful rescue of three boaters stranded on the Fox River and the moment their disabled vessel plunged over the dam.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Had St. Charles firefighters been delayed at all -- had they been out of the station on another call, or chosen the wrong boat launch, or failed to back into the water perfectly the first time -- the outcome might have been entirely different, said Lt. David Chmelar, one of the responding crew members.

But the Truck 101 unit did everything right that Sunday afternoon, safely transporting the couple and their teenage son to shore amid an abrupt downpour and heavy winds.

"We knew time was going to be close, and everything just worked out perfectly," Chmelar said.

"This was one of those calls that it could've gone a bunch of other ways, and luckily for us, everything went just as we had planned."

Chmelar and firefighter/paramedics Chad Tinsley, Mike Pyzyna and Brandon Paus were honored at a city council meeting this month for their heroic actions during that June 30 call.

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The group received the city's Unit Citation Award, given to members of a fire or medic unit for their exceptional performance or coordinated group action.

"All members of the company did their jobs with a high degree of skill and professionalism," Chief Joe Schelstreet said. "We are really proud of them."

Crews typically respond to a few water rescues a year, but Chmelar said he had never experienced anything as dangerously close to the dam.

When the call came in at 1:21 p.m., he said, the Truck 101 unit knew time would be of the essence based on the location of the disabled boat, which was just north of the Carroll Tower apartment building.

The motor failed, the anchor wasn't holding and the boat was drifting toward the dam.

Rescuers moved quickly from the fire station to Pottawatomie Park, where Chmelar and Tinsley put on their equipment, and their crew members got the rescue boat ready to launch. As Chmelar and Tinsley were taking off, it started raining.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

By the time they reached the stranded boat about a minute later, Chmelar recalled, the storm had picked up and the winds had gotten stronger. They tied off quickly, helped the three passengers into the rescue vessel and started back up the river, leaving the disabled boat behind.

Roughly 40 seconds later, it tumbled over the dam and capsized.

"(The passengers) knew it was going to be too close and there was no way we were going to be able to save the boat," Chmelar said. "But boats are replaceable."

Chmelar could hardly see through the rain as the rescue boat headed upstream, he said. It wasn't until they got back to shore that he was able to process just how dicey the situation had been.

The rescue received immediate attention and praise, Chmelar said, but "it's our job."

He credits his crew members' fast, meticulous actions, the group's teamwork and the fire department's training for saving the day.

"It's a low-frequency but high-risk call. You don't get a lot of exposure to it other than training," Chmelar said. "That's why we train. This is why we're here."

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