To hear them tell it, heroism is just part of the job, a core competency for Mountain Electric Cooperative employees.
"None of us see ourselves as heroes," says Line Foreman Rick Courtner, recalling the dramatic swift-water rescue he and his crewmate Cody Bryant performed in February. "This is our job. Basically, we train for it."
To save the life of a driver stuck midstream in her pickup, they climbed in the bucket of their work truck, nudging it almost horizontal only a few feet above a raging, storm-swollen mountain creek. Freezing water was swirling over the trapped woman's knees and rising when they pulled her to safety.
The rescue of Cathy Souder of Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, a Mountain Electric member, brought a lot of recognition to the co-op, which serves about 34,000 meters in the 700 square miles where Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia meet in the rugged Appalachians. Local and state officials presented awards. It was written up in the local paper, and residents congratulated them wherever they went.
But in considering the whole event, Courtner is convinced that rather than heroism, it was the convergence of professional competence, blind luck, and a little divine intervention that really saved Souder's life.
Bryant said they approached the rescue exactly like they would do any job. Size it up; gather the tools; deploy the skills learned by routine and repetition.
"Second nature took over," recalls Bryant, who has been a lineman for about four years. "We are always in the truck on jobs, so we have that confidence. We have safety meetings every month, and we practice bucket truck rescues. It's the same principle, getting someone out of a car or off a pole."
After they arrived on the sodden banks of Laurel Creek, Bryant rapidly made observations. A tree and mudslide had shoved Souder's pickup truck through a guardrail and down the embankment to the water. From there, the stream had pushed the truck another 450 yards, jamming it precariously against rocks while whitewater cascaded over its hood.
Bryant, Courtner, and fellow lineworkers Dakota Tester and Charlie Grindstaff set the bucket truck's riggers down, chocked the wheels, hooked into their harnesses and lanyards, and "flew" the 60-foot boom over the churning waters to the driver's side.
Courtner said he never even noticed the water because he was so fixated on the job of extricating Souder quickly and safely.
"You could see the fear in her eyes when we got there," he says. "She was calm though, as dire as the situation was. I have seen a lot of people freaking out over a lot less."
Following his instructions, she pushed herself to the edge of the door, her back to Courtner. The boom was about 2 feet short of reaching the vehicle. He leaned out, wrapped his arms around her and pulled her through the window into the bucket.
The whole thing lasted 10 or 15 minutes, he said. Emergency medical technicians whisked Souder to the county hospital, where she was later released.
Courtner, with 22 years on the job, acknowledges the professionalism of the crew, but he gives equal credit to luck and blessings for tilting the odds.
As the mudslide and crashing tree shoved the pickup into the creek, the rushing water pushed the vehicle far enough downstream to a site where a utility bucket truck could be deployed. Another 150 yards and the vehicle might have been engulfed by the undertow beneath a bridge. The pickup had also turned, so the bucket could go directly to the driver's side window. Even a slightly different angle would have complicated the rescue.
Another blessing came from the person initially on the scene, Mollie Ingle, also a Mountain Electric employee. She had the communications capacity and the background to set the lifesaving action in motion.
Ingle, 26, reads meters for the co-op. She was returning from a service call when she saw a downed tree on the highway and called 911. The situation became a crisis when a nearby resident told her there was a woman trapped by the floodwaters inside her truck.
Ingle instantly became the communications center. Once first responders arrived, they discovered their radios would not work in the remote location. Moreover, they did not have the equipment or training to attempt a swift-water rescue. A local tow truck operator suggested a utility bucket truck could reach the vehicle.
Ingle's truck radio was able to connect with the co-op. As a lifelong resident, she could pinpoint the remote location for the responders and accurately describe the situation. When co-op dispatchers were unable to connect with Courtner, who was on a job, she used her cellphone to reach him.
"Mollie's role was significant," Courtner says, adding that her composure and her knowledge of the co-op's personnel and its resources were critical.
He and Ingle also saw the role of something larger.
On the bank, during the rescue, there was a woman, possibly a passing motorist who had stopped. She was praying the whole time. No one seemed to know her.
The stranger vanished after the rescue.
Even Souder saw her from amid the floodwaters and mentioned her in an interview with the local newspaper.
"I would like to thank all the people that helped with the Lord to save my life … as well as the young lady praying for me," she said. "My heroes are Rick Courtner and Cody Bryant and their bucket. Our small community was there for me, and I will always be grateful."
To that, Courtner deflects all credit.
"We were only doing our job. But the one thing I am most thankful for is that the Lord put us there at that time."
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