GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As floodwaters gushed through a gaping section of Lakeshore Drive that had been washed away, firefighters realized early on that their search for a missing vehicle and the two people inside would be a recovery effort, not a rescue.
But a nagging thought stayed with Greg Janik, deputy chief for the Saugatuck Township Fire District.
“You don’t know,” he said. “There’s always that chance. What if? What if?”
In Sunday morning’s darkness, he and other rescuers used floodlights and flashlights as they worked their way over broken concrete and large rocks that once shored up the culvert below the road. It was a wide area to search, a 50-foot-deep ravine that wiped out a 100-foot stretch of road.
They knew the family of Clarissa Green, 51, and her nephew, Dean Taylor, 17 reported missing while delivering newspapers waited nearby for the news. Family had spotted the washout, concerned for the two who were acting as subcontractors for a Grand Rapids Press delivery contractor.
“It was emotional,” Janik said Monday. He was the first one on the scene.
“It was one of the most difficult recoveries. But for me, I tried to stay focused on the task at hand and do the best we can as a team. But it was very difficult. It could’ve been any one of us. It could’ve been someone we know.”
Rescuers eventually found the overturned car, about 100 feet downstream in about 3 feet of rushing water. Barring a miracle, it was obvious no one could survive.
“The dangerous part of it was … the current,” Fire Chief John Blok said. “The current was really, really strong. There was a lot of water going through there at that time.”
With his firefighters in or near the water, Blok radioed at five-minute intervals to make sure they were OK. As the water slowly receded, firefighters were connected to harnesses and ropes, tied to trees far from the bank, concerned about its stability. They had to use a pry bar to get into the vehicle to determine that one victim was inside, then the other.
“It was a terrible task, but nothing compared to the family’s grief,” Janik said.
Firefighters had no intention of leaving the bodies of the victims behind. Janik said he knew it was too important for the victims’ family.
State police said firefighters worked carefully in the unstable conditions, surrounded by moving water and mud slides.
“They’re willing to do whatever it takes. I’m very proud to be working with them,” Janik said.
Then, he added: “It was a tough one. You can’t do this and not be affected to a degree.”