Thoughts of his grandmothers spurred West Columbia firefighter Brad Smith to unhook from a safety line in an attempt to save a woman swept away in a flash flood near Blythewood last week.
“I thought of what it would mean if this was happening to my family and decided to go try and save her,” Smith said. “I caught her somehow.”
On Sunday, Oct. 4, Smith was on a team of rescuers sent from the Lexington County town to assist neighboring Richland County, straining to keep pace with calls for help during floods created by record rain.
A group of West Columbia firefighters, including Smith, was sent to help a motorist — Clara Gantt — whose vehicle stalled in a flooded section of Wilson Boulevard, near Lake Elizabeth, as she headed home to Irmo after visiting relatives.
Recently trained in water rescue, Smith was in a wet suit tethered on a lifeline as he waded into the rapidly moving water. After putting a life jacket on Gantt, she slipped from his grasp and was propelled downstream, authorities said.
In what Smith said was a split-second decision, the 22-year-old firefighter thought of his grandmothers and released himself from the lifeline to search for Gantt.
“The image of them just flashed in my mind and made me decide it was worth it,” he said. “When she was swept out of my grasp, I said, ‘Not today,’ when it came to losing her. I was determined. ”
Smith “made a gutsy call,” said Marquis Solomon, operations chief for West Columbia’s firefighters.
The firefighter floated downstream an estimated 100 yards before he found Gantt holding on to mobile home’s porch.
Grabbing her again, the pair swam, waded and floated along a series of trees as Smith yelled for help.
Other firefighters racing along the edge of a wooded area heard Smith’s calls and threw a bag with another line, which the pair grabbed to be pulled to safety.
Smith, a firefighter for nearly four years, doesn’t consider what he did in his first water rescue exceptional.
“The guys who saved us are the real heroes,” he said of an episode that authorities say lasted 22 minutes.
Gantt, who later stopped by to thank Smith, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.
When it comes to water rescues, firefighters in West Columbia normally find themselves dealing with stranded boaters on the lower Saluda and Congaree rivers, which flow on the north and east edges of the community of 15,000.
“What he (Smith) encountered was far different than dealing with our rivers,” Solomon said. “It was an unfamiliar setting, a much bigger challenge.”
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483