Indianapolis Firefighter Rescued After Being Swept Away by Floodwaters

Indianapolis firefighter rescued from water

Report by Rita Reith

An Indianapolis firefighter was rescued by two Indiana Conservation Officers when he was left clinging to a tree branch in frigid floodwaters after his car had been washed away by the swift water.

Shortly before 6 a.m., Damon Fine, 37, left his ranch property and headed to work at Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD) Station 24.  In the pitch black of morning, Fine headed westbound on Putnam County Rd 1300 South and approached a slightly elevated bridge. The harsh winter and days of constant rain had taken their toll on the country roads, whose tattered conditions made travel slow and deliberate. As he slowly continued across the bridge–unaware that it’s curvature created a slope–his vehicle lights crested, came back down and an almost instantaneous, frightening realization gripped him. In the blink of an eye he was into deep water. Immediately, Damon threw his car into reverse, but to no avail. The front of the car immediately began to dip forward, with water rushing over the hood and hitting the windshield. Within seconds, water covered the doors and leveled at the base of the window. The car’s engine died. He knew he had to get out. 

Unable to open the door and with water already at the window, the flow began to take him past the barriers of the bridge and into the fully flooded cornfield. His only way out was going through the sunroof of the car. Quickly opening the sunroof, Fine grabbed his cell phone and called 911. As he climbed out, the car begins sinking. With only moonlight as his guide, he stayed on top of the car to ride it out as long as possible. The car continued to move position and the front end continued to sink. Still on the phone with dispatch, he began to hear bubbling in the trunk and electrical malfunction noises in the car. The car now began to move from underneath his feet. Although he saw trees in this distance, the current was moving him away from the trees.

With Iphone still in hand and dispatch still on the line, Fine found himself submerged, his head the only thing above water.  Exhausted, freezing cold, and with his fireman’s chore jacket and clothing heavy and filled with water, Fine tried to swim himself out of the current.  As a firefighter, he knew he was nearing shock.  Reminding himself to stay calm was not easy. He could barely move and had no feeling left in his arms and legs. Too afraid of hypothermia to shed his jacket, Fine removed only his shoes. Controlling his breathing and mentally calming himself,  he stopped fighting the current and allowed it to move him north to south, which thankfully got him to the trees.

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The Owen County Dispatcher maintained constant communication with Fine and encouraged him to stay as calm as possible. Damon now precariously clinging to the tree, says he knew he was near shock and the bitter chill was taking a toll. The importance of keeping Damon awake and alert was critical.  At one point the dispatcher said to Damon, “Tell me something. What were you going to do today?”

“You know what’s insulting about this, and a little bit embarrassing,” Fine replied. “I’m a firefighter. I’m on my way to work. I need you to call my officer so I won’t be AWOL. I have to be there by 8:00.”

As Damon used his cell phone flash light to alert to his location, the dispatcher guided both Owen County Sheriff’s Deputies and DNR to his position. Thirteen minutes after arrival and deployment of the Jon boat, Damon was safely in the hands of two Indiana Conservation Officers, Lt. Kent Hutchins & Officer Patrick Labhart. Although conscious and alert, his vitals and body temperature were consistent with hypothermia and his level of consciousness was severely diminished. He was transported to Putnam County Hospital where he stayed until about 1 pm and released. He is resting at home. 

Damon is a four-year veteran of the IFD. His traumatic ordeal has left him shaken but very blessed that he is alive and now ok. He is a well-trained firefighter and understands the tremendous difficulty of staying calm when faced with an unexpected life threatening situation. He says his firefighter training and ability think on his feet and to remind himself to “stop and breathe” is what saved his life. Damon is very grateful for the Owen County Dispatcher and DNR Indiana Conservation Officers who rescued him.

As a department, we often message about the dangers of high water and the hot minute it takes to find yourself in a life-threatening situation. Today that happened to one of our own.  

RITA L. REITH is a battalion chief with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department (IFD) and serves as the agency’s public information officer.

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