Quick thinking contributed to a heroic rescue of two victims trapped in a fully engulfed pleasure boat — just another day's work for Miami's oft-called and heavily trained dive-rescue team.
In the early morning hours of March 31, 2008, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) responded to a call from the U.S. Coast Guard concerning a fire at the Miami Beach Marina. Heavy flames were engulfing two multimillion-dollar yachts with radiant heat and smoke threatening a third. The fire was so intense, the possibility of anyone inside surviving was doubtful.
As MDFR Fireboat 1 began its water assault on the side of the vessels, screams were heard from one of the yachts. Moving toward its bow, the crew was stunned to see hands frantically signaling from a porthole. Two people were trapped inside with no way of escaping the inferno.
The heroic rescue of the two people from the bathroom below the main deck resulted in Miami-Dade Firefighter Nicholas DiGiacomo being awarded the 2009 International Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor, co-sponsored by the and . In its 40th year, the award is the highest honor bestowed upon an individual by the IAFC and recognizes firefighters around the world for their heroism, expert training, leadership and safe practices.
Water rescue is a specialty of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, which is second only to the U.S. Navy in number of scuba divers and rescue swimmers. The MDFR has 650 divers and 1,500 swimmers, and is responsible for 84 miles of coastline and 67 square miles of inland water. They average three water-related rescue calls per day.
The water-rescue section of the fire department is divided into three bureaus: Marine Services is responsible for offshore boats; Ocean Rescue covers public beaches or surface rescues; and Dive Rescue handles all underwater rescues — for example, a car that plunges into a lake, a plane that crashes into the ocean, and underwater construction accidents. While each of the bureaus is capable of making a rescue either above or below the water, due to the nature of geography and coastlines it is necessary to have the different specialties.
During the fire in the Miami Beach Marina, both DiGiacomo — who is a member of the Marine Services bureau — and the officer in charge boarded a private fishing boat, the only vessel that could get close enough to the burning yacht with the trapped victims. Using a chainsaw and k12 saw, they worked to open the fiberglass hull, which was extremely difficult to cut. Once through the hull, DiGiacomo promptly removed his own mask and passed it through the porthole for the victims. He then threaded a hoseline to the victims to suppress the fire that was threatening their lives.
The Marine Services bureau has specific requirements for its members, including a Coast Guard masters license, radar endorsement, paramedic certification, hard-hull certification and marine firefighting, to name a few. Meanwhile, the Dive Rescue bureau requires its members to have, at a minimum, an advanced open-water certification, according to Lt. Al Valdez, the dive-rescue training officer. Once they’re in the program, they have to complete a 40-hour diving course to obtain a scuba-rescue authorization, and then do quite a bit more on an annual basis to keep it current.
“Once the diver is in our program, the diver must have 12 dives, 12 continuing education units [dives], and pass an annual proficiency test [class and pool work] every year,” Valdez said, adding that all members of the MDFR dive team also must be state-certified firefighters and EMTs. While some members are ex-military, it is not a requirement.
The MDFR’s water-rescue equipment includes four Bell 412 helicopters; 50- and 36-foot fire boats; two 36-foot fast-rescue boats (hard hull); and 10 hard-hull inflatable boats. In addition, the bureau has four personnel water crafts. Personal equipment includes specialized, full face masks with diver-to-diver-to-surface communications, and handheld sonar.
Last July, the department opened a state-of-the-art, $30 million facility with multiple training scenarios, including a pool dedicated to dive-rescue training. Law enforcement and other local and state agencies quickly signed on to access the facility for their training exercises.
Other training scenarios used specifically by the Marine Services Bureau include a car submerged in a body of water, air deployment, search for lost person underwater and victim care while in the water. According to Valdez, the most common call is a car in a canal. The most challenging types of rescue are a plane crash, industrial quarry (dragline operation with water that is from 80 to 100 feet deep), and contaminated water.
Valdez offered some advice to other fire chiefs with water-rescue teams. “Do not re-invent the wheel,” he said. “Seek out those agencies that have been doing water rescues for a while and ask for advice. Learn from other’s mistakes — that’s what we do.”
With the marina in flames that day in 2008, DiGiacomo displayed quick thinking and courage, risking his own life to save others. “When you see people, pressing their faces to the portholes and gasping for air, there’s no part of your brain that lets you think they are going to die,” he said. “It’s ‘We’re going to get them out.’”
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