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Historic flooding firsthand: Team member recalls most intense water rescue

The tireless rains and subsequent flooding of late September etched 2009 in the annals of Gwinnett history.

Flood waters ravaged more than 300 homes and businesses, sending damage estimates north of $8 million. About 3,000 Gwinnettians applied for assistance to ease the process of piecing their lives back together. A 39-year-old Lawrenceville woman, disallowed that chance, drowned when flash floods invaded her van.

Among the tragedies unsung heroes emerged, including hundreds of police and firefighters stepping into new roles the very day creeks and rivers swelled.

The Gwinnett County Fire Department, for instance, responded to 150 emergency calls in six hours the morning of Sept. 21 -- what they'd normally field in a day.

"And these weren't everyday runs," spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said. "These were calls where people's lives were in extreme danger."

Lt. Dominic Aquila II, a commander with Gwinnett's Swift Water Rescue Team, recently gave his perspective on his team's most intense rescue. His account speaks to the endurance of emergency responders and the epic force of the water itself.

"Honest to God, the power, the intensity, was like nothing we train for," Aquila said. "It was do or die time, almost literally."

By 7 a.m. Sept. 21, night was dissipating from Arcado Road near downtown Lilburn. Flash floods sabotaged a middle-aged woman crossing over the Yellow River in her blue passenger car, pinning the vehicle against a gate that protected a Georgia Power property.

The muddy water was slick with fuel from a neighboring junkyard. Uprooted trees and 55-gallon drums torpedoed into the vehicle, smashing all its windows. The woman stood on her window sill, clinging to the vehicle's roof, screaming downstream for help. That's how responders found her, as Aquila recalled:

"The water was not water. (It) was like liquefied mud. It was moving at such an intensity, you could put your foot in it, and it'd just take it away. How this lady held on as long as she did, I'll never know.

"You'd see (the trees), and the next second they'd be gone. It was like a big game of Frogger, trying to get to her.

"I deployed two firefighters (Dale Burney and Scott Robertson) and they used a telephone pole to break the pressure of the water a little bit. One was trying to keep her calm, telling her not to jump. If she'd of jumped, that would've been it. There's no telling where she'd have wound up.

"(Robertson) deployed downstream about 50 feet as a safety. I put our boat (a flat-bottomed Zodiac) in the water to go get her. My plan was to turn upstream ... and kind of ferry over to pick her up."

Massive concrete slabs, lifted from a nearby driveway, channeled Aquila's boat into a street sign, which capsized the vessel. The water ripped it away in seconds.

"The boat was gone. They threw me a rope. She was too far away in such a heavy current, we couldn't throw a rope to her ... the water was washing up over her car, creating what we call a standing wave. There was a constant wave hitting her in the face.

"She screamed and went into the water. (Robertson) jumped in after her, grabbed her by her bra strap and put a hand up. The rope that had been thrown to me ... I threw it and hit him on his right shoulder. It got wrapped around his right hand.

"I swear to you, God Himself tied that rope around (Robertson's) thumb ... like a cinch knot. He was basically water-skiing backwards. I was holding on for dear life to both of them, and he just sank. He couldn't let go -- it was hard-tied around his thumb. They were dragging me downstream. He had a (personal flotation device) on (but) he was underwater completely."

Aquila wasn't aware his counterpart was holding onto the victim "for dear life," his legs wrapped around her torso, unable to use his knife to cut the rope without losing her.

"He was at the point of letting go. It was either let go of her, and she's dead, or just hold on and die with her. There was no in between."

Sensing trouble, Aquila let the rope out. That allowed Robertson and the victim to pop up with his PFD.

"They floated into a couple saplings, some scrub pines. He was probably 70 feet downstream. He started screaming, 'I broke my hand.' We kept leapfrogging until we got to him.

"(The victim) was remarkably calm ... she had the composure of a rescuer. She was scared to death, but she was amazing."

Sufficiently buoyed, Robertson and the rescued woman clung to a rope and were towed to shore.

"We're trained and trained until it's just drilled into us," Aquila said. "When it happens, you don't think anymore. You just do."