First Responders Describe Crash as 'War Zone'

Deputies, paramedics and neighbors team up to help with "devastating injuries."


 
 

Matt Soergel | | Thursday, April 16, 2009


St. Johns County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Alexander couldn't see the boat from land because it was blocked from sight by the tugboat that it had struck in the Intracoastal Waterway.

But the cries and shrieks of the injured - he could hear those clearly.

"You hear this, and I don't know how to describe it, the wails of people in pain, and how they were screaming," he said. "At that point I didn't know anybody had died, but obviously people were hurt bad."

Alexander and Deputies Wesley Grizzard and Daniel Barnhart, who all patrol the Ponte Vedra-Palm Valley area, arrived at the scene of Easter's boat crash just seconds behind a county Fire-Rescue ambulance.

"I've got people standing out in the road screaming," said Grizzard, 38. "At that point I realized this wasn't a simple accident."

The deputies and two paramedics ran toward the water, toward the cries of pain. They saw a long, unfinished dock, a barge alongside it and a tug at the end.

For a second, Barnhart wondered: How could that tug have gone so fast to cause so many injuries? Then anguished neighbors told them that the victims were in a smaller boat behind it.

Now the rescuers faced a dilemma: How to get to the end of the dock, which was just pilings and cross pieces. The paramedics took the direct route, tiptoeing across the planks as if they were tightrope walkers.

Meanwhile, someone - Alexander is not sure who - saw a stack of plywood next to the unfinished house on the property. The three deputies, neighbors and other arriving rescue crews grabbed the 4-by-8-foot sheets and raced to the dock to make a stable surface for rescuers.

"We kind of formed an assembly line, and just started lugging those pieces of wood out there and stacking them," said Alexander, 28. He thinks they placed about 17 pieces down, perhaps more, and managed to reach the end of the dock.

"Only then were we able to find out what we had," Barnhart said. "And what we had was tragic, very tragic."

Nine people were injured, all in pain. Disbelieving deputies were told there were at least four others dead on the boat. Soon after, a fifth fatality was confirmed.

Alexander said he helped one victim off the boat who was in intense agony, saying his teeth hurt. The deputy looked in his mouth - all his top teeth were gone.

"It just really felt like a war zone out there. Just to see the amount of injured people and the devastating injuries that each had incurred - that was by far the worst I've ever seen," said Barnhart, 34, a six-year veteran of the department.

Rescuers began lifting the injured from the boat, placing them on gurneys and wheeling them down the makeshift plywood dock toward the house. Calls were made to Life Flight helicopters, which took three of the worst off to Shands Jacksonville.

Those killed in the accident were left on the boat until state investigators could get to the scene, which the deputies said is standard procedure.

FOCUSING ON OTHERS' SAFETY

Barnhart said that in the face of such horror, your training and instincts kick in, enabling you to block out the carnage.

"When you encounter something like that you don't really flinch or blink an eye," he said. "I know it's cliche, but you don't think about yourself, your own safety - you just think about those people who need help."

Added Grizzard: "When chaos is there, we're supposed to stay calm."

The deputies' shift had started at 5 p.m. - a little more than two hours before the horrific accident. It wouldn't end until 5 a.m. So, after several hours at the scene, they went back on patrol, responding to alarms, thefts - the routine incidents of the night.

The deputies were impressed by how neighbors pitched in to help and comforted some of the injured. And they say they're proud of the work they and dozens of other rescuers put in.

"The whole thing is, you're here to save lives. You're a public servant," Grizzard said. "It was a great effort."




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