Birth of rescue in WNC
On a hot summer day in 1956 Glenn Simpson and his wife were enjoying an outing on Lake Summit. It was the same day that tragedy would befall three U.S. Navy sailors that were inspecting the Lake Summit dam. Simpson and his wife witnessed the accident and the helplessness of their community to respond. There was nothing anyone could do; no chance of rescue and no capability of recovery. Local authorities had to call Gaston Lifesaving Crew over two hours away to perform the recovery. At this point in time, they were the closest rescue squad to WNC. This was not the first time that an accident had affected Henderson County but it was the first time that a citizen saw the need for local response.
Simpson would be proactive in his vision of a volunteer rescue organization for Henderson County. At the time there were only two fire departments in Henderson County that had the great responsibility of responding to all calls, even though their insurance didn’t cover rescue at the time. Simpson being a veteran of World War II had the perfect outlet for his vision, his local VFW post. At the next meeting, Simpson appealed to the local veteran’s sense of duty and service to protect the people of Henderson County. There was little discussion or debate that the need was apparent. The VFW voted to start a twenty five-member squad that would respond to anything they were called to help with. The basic requirement to be a member was American Red Cross Advanced First Aid. Neal Grissom was charged with instructing the medical courses. Equipment in the early days was a different story; Chief Edney of the Hendersonville Fire Department donated the first vehicles. The vehicles included one van with a john boat (this same boat was used to rescue animals in the 2004 flood) and a station wagon to transport personnel. This would be the beginning of a long lasting working relationship between the Henderson County Rescue Squad and the Hendersonville Fire Department. The first man to take the responsibility of leading the squad was Ed Hunnicutt. In late summer of 1956 the Hendersonville VFW Rescue Squad was opened for business. According to charter member Bill McClure the charge was to assist “anybody that needed help”. Finally, a rescue squad in western North Carolina was formed.
The members of the Rescue Squad quickly saw the need for another boat and started selling raffle tickets on Main Street to raise money. It was during this time that the squad would have its first call. A man had drowned in a small fishing pond in Polk County and the squad’s recovery efforts were called upon. Ralph Jones, Bill McClure, and another member responded to find the victim. This would also begin a tradition of the squad to respond outside county lines to assist wherever needed. The second call the squad had was about a week later at Lake Julian. After two days of searching, the members had not found the victim. It was at this point that member Jim Newman a demolitions expert suggested the use of TNT to dislodge the body from the bottom. In an account from Bill McClure, “We didn’t find the body but got a lot of bottom feeding fish”. Explosives are not a tool used by the modern rescue squad but the ingenuity is a useful value to a member. It was after this call that citizens of Waynesville and Canton would form their own rescue departments much like Henderson County. The members in the early days would staff the trucks every weekend and responded to a range of calls from auto accidents to searches much like the modern rescue squad does today.
After a year of being the Hendersonville VFW Rescue Squad, the members decided to open the membership to all citizens of the county. At this same time the squad would move from the VFW building to the Henderson County Water Department building which was located behind the courthouse. The name was also changed to the Henderson County Rescue Squad. This was also the year the department was chartered. During the next ten years the squad would respond to many different calls. At times squad members clad in cotton jumpsuits would find themselves holding hose lines on major fires in the county. Training would also evolve during these years with members from military training to state sponsored rescue training. The squad would meet every challenge they would face.
Disaster Hits Hendersonville
The first ten years of the squad would be marked by one call that stands out above all the rest. Around noon on July 19, 1967, a tragedy that would shake the small community to its core would unveil at about 6000 feet above what is now the intersection of Hwy 64 and I-26. The result would leave 82 people dead and a community left to pick up the pieces. The following account comes from the Aviation Safety Network’s website.
“Piedmont Flight 22 took off from Asheville runway 16 at 11:58 for an IFR flight to Roanoke. The flight crew had to maintain runway heading until reaching 5000 feet. The controller placed this restriction on Flight 22 to keep it on a southeasterly course until Cessna 310 N3121S had reported over the Asheville VOR. The Cessna, owned by Lanseair was on a company business flight from Charlotte, NC to Asheville, NC with three occupants on board. While the Boeing 727 was still on its takeoff roll the pilot of the Cessna reported "Two one Sierra just passed over the VOR, we're headed for the ... (4sec pause) ... for .. ah .. Asheville now." The Approach controller then cleared the Cessna to descend and maintain 6000 feet. At 11:59:44 the controller cleared Flight 22 to "... climb unrestricted to the VOR, report passing the VOR". He then cleared the Cessna for an ADF-2 approach to runway 16. The Boeing 727 was in a climbing left turn when both aircraft collided at an altitude of 6132 feet. Weather was a 2500 feet ceiling with broken clouds and 4 miles visibility in haze.”
The crash ranks as the 30th worst aviation incident in US history. Members of the Rescue Squad along with all county fire departments and departments from other counties rushed to the scene. The main parts of the Boeing 727 fell into a trash pit near I-26 and erupted into flames. In seconds one of the largest disasters in state history engulfed the abilities of the members and pushed them to the limit. The first squad members to arrive on scene started the grim task of looking for survivors in the wreckage. Other members began to keep order in neighborhoods that had debris rain down on them. It was soon apparent that the crash had claimed the lives of all involved but still the duties of the squad were far from over. That day a temporary morgue was setup at the National Guard Armory and victims were moved there for identification. In the days to follow the Rescue Squad searched and removed victims from the crash site. It was accounted that one individual fell through the ceiling of a nearby house. This is a part of Henderson County history that is seldom mentioned but still today on the walls of the squad one can read letters from the US Congress, Piedmont Airlines, NC General Assembly, and Department of Transportation thanking the Henderson County Rescue Squad for their assistance and bravery in the face of such carnage.
Meeting the challenges of a growing community
On August 26, 1973 the Henderson County Rescue Squad moved into their station that they currently still use on Williams Street near downtown Hendersonville. During the seventies and early eighties the squad would introduce the first “Jaws of Life” to Henderson County. This was a hydraulic spreader with attachable cutter tips and pulling chains. This tool would help with individuals pinned in vehicles and farm machinery. The squad today still responds to vehicular pin-ins within Henderson County but with a much more advanced extrication operation. In 1981 the squad would admit its first female member, Kathy Morgan. Today, about fifty percent of the members are female. In the mid-eighties the duties of the squad were to respond to pin-ins, support EMS, and perform medical stand-by at football games.
Any rescue squad member can tell you that rescue is dynamic, and the ever-changing population brought new and difficult problems for the squad in the late eighties and early nineties. In 1987 under the leadership of Sam Morgan, the Henderson County Rescue Squad would start the first rescue dive team in WNC. This would take the place of dragging the bottom of a lake with large fishing hooks to try and snag a victim. Now evidence and drowning victims could be searched for and recovered in a more efficient and timely fashion. The dive team would soon gain statewide recognition and travel to several different parts of the south to offer their services. In 1992 the first dive pontton boat and dive platform was put into service and the squad divers became proficient with a surface supplied air system. Another noteworthy accomplishment is the hundreds of rescue divers trained by the squad over the years from all over WNC. During this time, the squad would advance their abilities in high angle and swift water rescue to provide the county with its first technical rescue capabilities.
Rain, sleet, and snow
In 1993 Mother Nature would, for the first time, take a blow at the abilities of the Rescue Squad. In March of that year, a blizzard would dump around 26 inches of snow and blizzard conditions on WNC. Due to the squad having the only four-wheel drive ambulances in the county, they teamed up with EMS to provide medical services and evacuation to patients. Mike Edney, Captain during this storm, stated that “the best part was that there was no loss of life in this county”, He believes that it had to do with the hard work and dedication of emergency workers during the storm. Some calls would take five or more hours to reach patients. One account from the storm is when members were trying to pull a stuck EMS unit out of a ditch they had to take cover in a nearby cemetery behind gravestones to protect themselves from the wind and snow. But after days of dedication and hard work the storm passed and the squad still assisted with recovery efforts.
In the nineties, the squad advanced their technical rescue abilities in swift water and high angle. These skills were put to the test in 2004 when Hurricane Francis ripped though WNC. On the day after Labor Day, it began to rain and rain hard! Roads and neighborhoods began to flood. Around 6pm the first call for an automobile in high water was dispatched. After the first call, several more swift water rescues were dispatched all over the county as people found them self in danger of the rapidly moving water. Under the leadership of Chief Jimmy Brissie, the squad was divided into several teams to respond to multiple calls. In the discipline of swift water rescue, the last resort is to send a rescue swimmer into the water due to the increased danger. Several times during the night, rescue swimmers were deployed to make rescues. When the rescue technicians recall that night, two major rescues come to mind. First was when a family was stranded on the far side of a flooded creek and their home was in emminent danger of being flooded out. Swiftwater Rescue Technician Scott Justus made the daring swim across the creek. Swiftwater Rescue Technician Rhonda Brissie supported him. After he made it to the other side of the creek a boat was ferried over on a ropes system to evacuate the family. During the flood other medical teams manned ambulances to assist with transport of patients to shelters and the hospital. Around 10pm that evening a call came out that a patient was stuck in a tree in the middle of a flooded river. This call would test the abilities and skill of the water rescue team. The squad arrived with local fire departments to find a male subject stranded in the middle of a 300-foot wide raging river that had flooded a bridge. This would be an extremely dangerous and highly technical rescue. After attempts to shoot a line across the water failed, a plan to use a large National Guard five ton truck as an anchor point was put into action. The truck was driven into the current and a raft was deployed from it. The individual was rescued and transported to the hospital by some of the same members that had worked for hours in the elements to save him. The flood would continue for the next few days, other SRT’s came to assist the initial rescuers. When the flood was over the squad had responded to 55 calls for service, most being swift water. But even though Hurricane Frances had left WNC, her brother Hurricane Ivan was beginning his assault of the southern US. This time the Rescue Squad prepared along with Henderson County Emergency Management for another apparent flood. Members were called in to standby at the station and prepare units for the second flood. Ivan brought higher winds and heavy rains and again the squad was called to protect the county. During Ivan, the squad performed several water rescues plus assistance with a collapsed structure incident. There were a total of 25 swift water rescues during Ivan. The two hurricanes totaled over 80 calls for service. As a result of the water rescue performed, there were no water related deaths within the county. In the following year, the squad was able to justify more funds to build a state certified swift water team. In 2005 several squad members responded to assist displaced civilians from New Orleans after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. The members responded to Charlotte to form a mobile field hospital with the state SMAT team.
The Henderson County Rescue Squad today provides both technical rescue and medical support for the citizens of Henderson County and for anyone who needs help throughout the county and region. By reading this brief history, one should understand the traditions that drive the squad every day. The traditions of duty and service in the face of danger and the principle of members of the community protecting and serving, continuing to drive the Rescue Squad. On the side of the Rescue Squad vehicles one can read “ Dedicated to the service of Henderson County”. This is a fitting and true motto for the men and women of the Henderson County Rescue Squad.
A special thanks to Mark Shepherd for compiling this history through interviews and records.