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Two lives saved by ‘awesome group effort’ after slideoffs during flooding early Tuesday on Highway PD

August 26, 2018 GMT

Rushing water left by an almost unfathomable rainfall early last week led to several dramatic rescue attempts around Dane County.

In one heart-rending case, two people were saved when their SUV became stuck in a drainage ditch on Madison’s Southwest Side late Monday, but rescuers holding onto the driver were unable to counter the force of the water, which swept James “Jim” Sewell to his death.

But two other dramatic rescues early Tuesday, both along the same road west of Verona and only four hours and about 100 yards apart, had happier endings — although success was never guaranteed.

In the first rescue. two Dane County sheriff’s deputies knew the situation was dire when they reached a Camaro that had washed off Highway PD about 2 miles west of University Ridge Golf Course. The deputies found the driver wedged in the frame of the sunroof with just his head outside the car and rising floodwater lapping against his face.

“As I was talking to him, the man was definitely gurgling water and spitting it back out as he was talking,” said deputy Nathan Katzenmeyer. “We knew we had to get him out or we were going to be in big trouble.”

The 52-year-old man, later identified by Dane County officials as Kurt Gust, was saved by the efforts of a large group of rescuers in the face of extremely dangerous conditions created when heavy rains — between 11 and nearly 15 inches fell in parts of western Dane County — turned some area roads into water slides.

“It was without a doubt the most awesome group effort I’ve ever seen,” said Department of Natural Resources game warden Jake Donar, who drove a small DNR boat to get the deputies to the submerged car.

“So many things could have gone wrong, but everything went as right as they could have and a man was saved.”

The first rescue was completed by Katzenmeyer and fellow deputy Rob Schiro about an hour after the man called 911.

Among the things that went “as right as they could,” according to Katzenmeyer: The help of boats brought to the scene by Donar and the Madison Fire Department, Schiro’s quick thinking to grab a personal flotation device from a Verona hotel while en route to the scene, and the effort by firefighters from Verona and Mount Horeb to park their rigs in the rising water so they could light up the rainy scene with their spotlights.

The second rescue

Remarkably, a similar rescue played out four hours later after a woman’s SUV was washed out at nearly the same point along Highway PD. The SUV ended up about 100 yards farther downstream than the Camaro.

Though the water was now deeper and moving faster than during the first rescue, Katzenmeyer said the woman was rescued from the top of her SUV with the help of a nearby homeowner who had a fan boat parked in his driveway.

“It was definitely the right tool for the job,” said Mason Dorn, 35, who lives on Highway PD in the town of Springdale and uses his boat to hunt carp with a bow and arrow on area lakes and rivers. “The deputies were pretty stoked about it, too.”

Katzenmeyer agreed. “It made a tough and serious job very easy,” he said.

Soaked and cold after the Camaro rescue, Katzenmeyer went on to help numerous other drivers who were stuck in floodwaters through the night. He was on Highway 151 near the exit close to Epic Systems when he heard a call around 4 a.m. that an SUV driven by a woman had washed off Highway PD at the same spot where the Camaro slid off.

“I immediately got on the air and said we needed to call the guy with the fan boat,” Katzenmeyer said.

During the search for a boat during the first rescue, a Mount Horeb police officer knocked on doors of nearby homes around midnight and asked residents if they had boats they could lend the rescuers, Katzenmeyer said. Dorn responded and was going to help but he said Donar got there first with the DNR boat.

“They didn’t need me the first time but they obviously remembered me,” Dorn said.

Looking out at the SUV in the damp night air, Katzenmeyer was worried.

“This one looked more dangerous than the first because the water was deep and fast-moving and the vehicle was twice as far — if not farther — out than the first vehicle was,” he said.

But that all changed after Dorn showed up with his 20-foot boat equipped with a 57-inch gas-powered fan that can push the boat in less than a foot of water. It also is equipped with eight strong lights used to find carp swimming in dark water.

“It was pitch dark out there, but you could see everything,” said Dorn, who competes in carp hunting tournaments with the boat. “It took us about five minutes to get to the vehicle. I drove the boat back to shore, the paramedics took her and that was that.”

EMS personnel released the woman, who has not been identified, to the deputies and they drove her to a relative’s home not far from where her car slid off Highway PD, Katzenmeyer said.

‘It was gripping’

The SUV incident proved to be much easier than the first rescue, which played out over police scanners as Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney listened intently.

The sheriff would later cite the Camaro rescue as an example of what he called a night of heroism by first responders all over the county. “It was gripping,” Mahoney said. “You couldn’t pull yourself away from listening to it.”

Katzenmeyer, 45, who is part of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit, was helping a stranded driver on Highway J near Klevenville when the call about the Camaro came in around 11:30 Monday night. That alarmed Katzenmeyer because he had driven past that spot on Highway PD to get to Klevenville just 20 minutes earlier and there had been no signs of flooding.

“So I knew the water was moving along. I knew we had to act fast,” he said.

Donar was less than five minutes away when he heard the 911 call. He raced to the scene but was stopped by floodwaters and had to reverse course. Hearing Katzenmeyer’s pleas for a boat over the scanner, Donar raced to Fitchburg with his lights and sirens blaring so he could pick up a boat at the service garage on Fish Hatchery Road and tow it to Highway PD.

While Madison Fire Department personnel were trying to launch their boat, Donar showed up and quickly put his boat in the water.

“He basically came in, did a U-turn and, without hesitation, backed the boat down in the ditch. Me and Schiro and the game warden jumped in the boat, pushed it off and away we went,” Katzenmeyer said.

The Madison fire department’s boat struggled with the rapidly flowing floodwaters so Donar headed his 14-foot boat downstream and then turned it upstream and kept the motor throttled to keep up with the current.

“You couldn’t see the car,” Donar said. “It was completely underwater. All that was visible was the man’s head and the PFD (personal flotation device) around his neck.”

Sheriff’s deputies knew that a man, later identified as Sewell, had died after slipping away from rescuers in Madison earlier that night and they didn’t want a repeat situation. That’s why Schiro stopped at the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Verona, seeking lifesaving equipment en route to Highway PD. He left the hotel with a personal flotation device that had a rope attached.

“We floated it out and he was able to get his head and fish an arm through it so we knew we’d have something to hold on to if he tried to slip away,” Katzenmeyer said.

Katzenmeyer and Donar both said Gust stayed calm throughout the ordeal. “That helped him stay alive,” Katzenmeyer said.

After Donar guided the boat to the side of the car, the deputies jumped onto the hood of the car and initially tried to pull Gust through the sunroof. “But there was no give,” Katzenmeyer said. “The man basically grimaced because he wasn’t coming through that hole. Not with the glass in there.”

The deputies then pulled on the sunroof until the glass broke away. That relieved pressure on Gust but it didn’t loosen the sunroof’s grip on him, Katzenmeyer said. They finally freed him when they popped the hinge of the sunroof with a crowbar handed to them by Madison Fire personnel, who had arrived at the car with their boat.

“As soon as we did that, the guy said something like, ‘Oh, I’m good now,’” Katzenmeyer said. “But as soon as it broke, the current tried to suck him back into the car because he was no longer wedged. But of course we had a hold of him so he couldn’t go anywhere.”

Katzenmeyer and Schiro got Gust into the fire department’s boat and it quickly got to shore so EMS personnel could tend to him. “They transported him to the hospital because of the length of time that he was in the water. I’m also sure he ingested some water,” Katzenmeyer said.

Still more work

After the second rescue on Highway PD, Katzenmeyer helped several more stranded motorists before wading through waist-high floodwaters to help evacuate a woman and her granddaughter from a home in Paoli.

“At the end of the day, you take those incidences that you’re involved in and think about what went right, what went wrong, what could have been better and you tuck those away in your little tool belt for the next day,” he said.

Donar was still thinking about the rescue from the Camaro several days later. “It was intense, but after it was all said and done it was pretty cool to have been there,” he said.