First responders save trapped Airmen during Typhoon Neoguri

  • Published
  • By 18th Wing Public Affairs
  • Airman 1st Class Keith James
Two 18th Security Forces Squadron response force members were rescued by a team of first responders while on duty here during Super Typhoon Neoguri, which struck the western coast of Okinawa, Japan, July 7-9.

"I can't believe we got out," said Airman 1st Class Brandon Miles to Airman 1st Class Roderick Jones when thinking back on the events of that early morning.

Neoguri, a Category 4 typhoon, raged its way through Okinawa with wind gusts up to 100 mph and heavy rain fall.

After two days, Kadena Air Base held up to the blunt force of the super typhoon and the island was placed in Typhoon Cyclone Condition of Readiness 1-Recovery. TCCOR-1R allowed for emergency essential personnel, such as the civil engineers, medics, firefighters and security forces, assigned to Kadena AB to begin assessing and reporting damage done to the base.

It was just a another shift for Miles and Jones, who were assigned to the Munitions Storage Area guard shack at line Gate 19

"Most of the night was spent talking and doing CDCs," Miles said. "We were sitting in there minding our own business."

Around 6 a.m., the defenders noticed water slowly rising under the underpass of the munitions gate and radioed in their current situation to the Base Defense Operation Center, or BDOC. Shortly after, water began to seep in from under the door of the guard shack.

"We began to notice flooding moving up towards the gate and after a while we heard gushing water coming from behind us." Miles said.

Jones responded by alerting BDOC of the situation, stating the water was rising and he and Miles were unable to get the door open.

BDOC quickly dispatched Master Sgt. Brad Reeves, the 18th SFS flight chief, and eight other defenders to head out to the scene and evacuate the trapped defenders in the guard shack. They also contacted Kadena Fire Emergency Services who sent two fire engines out to the scene.

The responders found the area was flooded and impassable due to the heavy rain from the super typhoon and determined the only way to get to the site was to go off road or by foot.

"We attempted to take Perimeter Road, and later Highway 74, and found both had been flooded and impassable," Reeves said. "So I decided to go back to Perimeter Road and reach them by foot."

All patrols arrived on scene at 7 a.m. Assessing what lay ahead, the responders noticed the water was now almost to the roof the guard shack, leaving the Airmen trapped inside with zero visibility and heavy rain showing no signs of stopping.

"The gate shack was under at least 10 feet of water now," Reeves said. "We began swimming toward the guard shack immediately after getting past the gate. Some of the Airman began trying to open the door and break (the) windows."

Running out of options, the responders decided to get inside of the shack by creating a hole in the roof.

They grabbed tools such as axes, sledge hammers, k-12 saws, multi-tools, chisels and pry bars, and swam through the flood water using the safety line to get to and from the guard shack. After climbing onto the roof, they tried cutting a hole using a k-12 saw until it malfunctioned. With the saw out of commission, responders took turns hacking away at the 8-12 inches of reinforced concrete that stood between them and the trapped Airmen.

"We just grabbed what we could," Reeves said. "We kept switching in and out, taking turns striking the roof to break a hole through to get them out."

Trying to stay calm but desperate for air, the two trapped defenders ran out of ideas. Panicking, Jones banged his head on the ceiling and damaged the tile.

Realizing the ceiling could be broken through; the defenders clawed the ceiling with their hands until they reached metal railings. Breaking the railing and un-doing the latches revealed more room and breathable space.

"After we got past the roof and unlatched the railing, I could hear the responders on top of the guard shack and began to communicate with them, "Jones said.

When a corner of the shack began to crumble and the debris falling, Miles alerted the responders that he and Jones were still alive.

"We saw light, it was coming through," Jones said.

They began motivating and encouraging the responders to keep going and received encouragement back. The hole grew larger and the trapped defenders grew more confident they were going to make it out, even with the water now inches from the ceiling.

As the rescue effort continued, Master Sgt. Duggins, the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron assistant chief of operations, and another firefighter grabbed replacement k-12 saws, blades, and transferred the equipment across the water. Using the equipment, the team was able to cut a hole approximately 12 x 18 inches through the roof and reach the trapped Airmen.

"I looked into the hole and saw no more than 6 to 8 inches of breathing space left," Duggins said.

Miles was first to be pulled out of the flooded shack. Duggins assisted Miles across the water and got the cold and shaking Airman to an on-scene medical ambulance for assessment.

Next was Jones, but he was unable to fit through the hole in the roof. The teams of first responders chiseled away at the opening, and after a few minutes were able to make a larger hole, and pulled him to safety.

"We weren't sure we were going to get out, and when we did it felt amazing," Jones said. "I was freezing, but it was amazing."

After rescuing the Airmen, Reeves and Duggins checked to see how much breathable space was left in the shack, revealing that within only a few moments after their rescue, anyone still trapped inside would have drowned.

"The lives of these two Airmen were in our hands," Duggins said. "It's only that we had faith in each other and confidence in one another that this rescue operation was a success."

Jones and Miles were transported to Fire Station 1 where they were further examined by medical personnel.

"They were there for us the whole time," Miles said. "They did not leave their wingmen behind."