When Crisis Strikes
Ordinary workers don superhero alter egos and come to our rescue
By Lisa Baker

Never have Oregonians seemed in more need of heroes than in the past few months — for someone to restore heat and light, provide passage over rushing waters, restore highways, pluck us from isolated wilderness trails, fetch our lost ones from the waves, or bring them home from the mountain to a final rest.

The cries for help began with an India-like monsoon season in November and December. Hard raindrops crashed down like bullets in a barrage that filled and overwhelmed every low place, creating sinkholes, and swallowing pavement and at least one manned utility truck in Portland (with no injuries). Rivers crested and shot free of their beds, invading yards and homes and forcing last-minute evacuations. And then the White River awoke, jumped its banks and shot a wall of water against the moorings of Oregon 35, washing it, along with a maelstrom of boulders and debris, down the canyon, stranding people upriver.

Hurricane-force winds followed, snapped power poles in half, and drowned towns in inky darkness, while shoving trees into houses and onto highways. On the mountains, blizzard conditions reigned. At the coast, the wind gusts combined with eight inches of rain to cause widespread damage.

While most Oregonians are advised to stay home in times like these, there are those we call — away from family and safe homes — to come to our rescue. You probably wouldn’t recognize them in the grocery store aisle or at the local video store, but there are super heroes among us. Their “special powers” don’t include flight or invincibility, like in the popular new TV show “Heroes,” but instead just a supernatural willingness to serve and to save us. Here are a few of their stories.

Bernie Wells and Todd Wells

You could ask them why they do this, show up for rescue duty in near white-out conditions when any thinking person — climber or not — is home in front of a fire wearing bunny slippers.

But the answers likely won’t make you jump up and join them.

For Bernie Wells, 61, being a Hood River Crag Rat, a search and rescue volunteer, is tradition. His father was a Crag Rat, he is a Crag Rat, and his son is a Crag Rat. “It has to be instilled in you at a young age — that passion to pay the community back,” he says.

Besides, he says, if he and his fellow mountaineers didn’t do it, who would? “The guys who initiated this back in 1926 did it because they were the only people qualified to go up when someone was hurt or injured or lost. It was just an extension of their love for the mountain.”

Todd Wells, Bernie’s son, says it’s a responsibility handed down by families. His son, in fact, is training to be a next-generation Crag Rat. “We are the people who stayed here generation upon generation. It’s our backyard. In fact, it’s kind of a competition to see how young you can get your kid up Mount Hood.”

Todd Wells was 11 when he climbed Hood’s north side the first time.

The two say they are keenly aware that accidents happen and that even seasoned climbers can get themselves in trouble. “We obviously put ourselves in positions at times where, let’s just say, only the mountain gods kept us out of harm’s way,” Bernie says. “There are some situations where your heart starts pumping and you wonder why you’re there.”

It’s one of the reasons they heed the call when someone’s in trouble — even at times when weather or circumstance make the odds of a good outcome slim.

Like in December, when three climbers were lost on the mountain and conditions were harsh — the wind carrying a wall of white with it, cutting rescuers to the ground over and over. “We tried the first day to find them, and even at under 9,000 feet we couldn’t see,” Todd says. “We broke up and over the ridge, and six out of six of us got blown over numerous times.”

Even so, the search went on day after day for nine long days, long enough that some on the ground protested the ongoing risk to the lives of the rescuers.

“The first few days were terrible. The cold and the wind, white-out conditions,” Bernie says. “Winds were 70 to 80 miles per hour, and you couldn’t see five feet in front of you. You’d maybe find somebody, if you tripped over him, but that was about the only way…After awhile,” Bernie acknowledges, “it drains you.”

Finally, a clear day arose and with it, plans to ferry a group of searchers to the peak by helicopter. Bernie Wells stayed below while his son was flown to the summit and lowered from the belly of the aircraft onto the top of the mountain. Bernie admits that despite his son’s expertise at climbing, he worries about him. Especially if he’s being dropped from a helicopter. “I’ll be glad when I see him back in front of the fire,” he says.

Meanwhile at the summit, the younger Wells was thinking, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. It’s like a carnival ride. I was spinning around (above the mountain) 100 feet and getting a 360 degree view nobody ever gets. I was thinking, ‘I wish I had a helmet cam!’”

But the glee soon fizzled when his team found the snow caves hastily constructed by the lost climbers and found only one of the lost — and that one dead of hypothermia, likely days before. With the lost climber, the contents of a digital camera made it abundantly clear: The climbers had not brought enough supplies to keep them alive this long.

It is not an unfamiliar feeling — so much effort, so little payback. But the Wells family and their mountain cohorts have grown accustomed to the idea that the mountain sometimes wins. It is better, says Todd, not to focus on those few days where rescuers arrive back home, exhausted and empty-handed but instead to remember the saving and triumphant days when a lost one is found and returned to the arms of family. “Anytime you can find someone that’s still kicking and happy to see you, that’s the best outcome there can be.”

Brad Spiering
PGE Lineman

This is not really the life Brad Spiering had in mind: dangling from a utility pole in a driving rain.

To be honest, he was thinking about something, well, drier.

But when the savage storm comes, leaving the guts of the Northwest hanging and arcing, plunging thousands into the dark and cold; Spiering knows where he needs to be.

He and his crew roll to the rescue, snapping new equipment in place as fast as humanly possible and then rolling on as lights flash on, furnaces come to life again, and well pumps grind back to work.

It’s a grueling job, more so now that Spiering has invested nearly two decades into it. Each year, he says, the winters seem colder and longer and the body less able to fight it off.

But then, it’s never been a cakewalk. “I remember that ice storm we had when I was still brand new. We were sent to Gresham where there was a line down across the Sandy River. Took us an hour and a half just to get to the pole because of downed trees and six inches of ice cubes on the ground,” he says. “Then they had to fly the wire back to us with a helicopter.” By the time the job was done, it was night again.

It’s like that, he says. Days turn to nights. “That’s just the job,” he says. “You have to learn that as you come up through the trade. It’s your responsibility.”

But there are rewards: rural folks out of power for six days, welcoming the linemen with open arms and, sometimes, hot coffee. And then there’s the wow factor involved in turning a city back on and watching it come to life before your eyes. “When you have one of those major storms and it’s black out there and you turn the city back on, well, it’s kind of a rush.”

He had his doubts in the beginning. After all, he was going into marketing. That’s what his college degree said. He may have come from a farming background, but he was sure there was a desk in his future somewhere. Working outdoors for a utility company was a back-up job at most while he waited for his career to take off, he figured.

His first day on the job didn’t change his mind about that.

Young and green, Spiering was assigned to flag traffic for a utility crew. When he reported for work at the intersection of Cornell and Miller roads in his brand-new, still-creased Carhartts, the sky was “clear as a bell.” Then came the snow. Lots of snow. More and more snow. Spiering’s Carhartts, farm-tough but no substitute for water-repellent rain gear, soaked through. His feet, despite considerable stamping about, were indescribably cold. He resorted to warming them with traffic flares as the day wore on and plunged into night. His first day was a 10-hour extravaganza.

Welcome to utility work.

Over time — and after buying rain gear — Spiering says he’s come to like being a lineman, being part of a close-knit, hard-working crew that lights up the night for people. He says he’s gotten used to the nip-and-tuck of the high, live wire act that in the beginning, he admits, “freaked me out.”

“I like looking at what I’ve accomplished at the end of a day, whether it’s doing maintenance or replacing an old pole with a nice clean one that will last another 50 years or responding to an accident. We got something done today. We got everyone’s lights on.”

Even so, there are some storms and some seasons that seem never to end. Like the storm before Christmas: 375,000 customers powerless, 245,000 alone were PGE customers. And while the linemen were out on the job, more trees fell, spurring one official to advise stormwatchers — those with power — to “stay home and watch it on TV” rather than come out and court danger.
For Spiering and his crew, the storm meant back-to-back double-plus shifts for days until progress was made.

“Christmas is usually my favorite time of year,” he says. “You throw the switch in a dark neighborhood and watch as the Christmas lights come on. It’s really neat.”

But this year — his first year with a new baby daughter — was different. This time the lights came alive, and he realized, “You’re missing your family at Christmas.

“During the storm I hadn’t seen her awake in six days. I was getting up at 6 a.m. and coming home at 1 a.m., and I’d been missing her every day. So, my last day of the storm I couldn’t handle it anymore. I woke her up just to see her awake. And you know, for the very first time, she smiled the biggest smile I’d ever seen and said ‘ya-ye,’ the first two-syllable word she’s ever said.

“Of course, it was tough to go back to work after that.”

Steve Weber
U.S. Coast Guard

Maybe it never would have happened if the U.S. Coast Guard hadn’t boarded his boat that day for a routine safety equipment check. Before that, it had been a typical working day on the sea for Steve Weber, who up to that point had never seriously considered a life outside commercial fishing.

After all, his dad was a commercial fisherman, and the sea was where he felt he belonged, too.

“So, you gonna fish your whole life?”

The answer might have been, “Well, as a matter of fact…,” but the questioner, the man from the Coast Guard, wasn’t looking to irritate, shoot the breeze or even philosophize. He was looking for a few good seamen to lay down their nets.

In the end, Weber isn’t sure what roped him in, only that his idea of a good day and a good life changed forever. Now, it’s not so much a great catch as a great rescue. Not so much about a good weather day as accomplishing something in the worst weather possible.

Like the day in 1994 when a lady’s call for help came into the station.

She was sailing solo when a no-nonsense squall blew up 80-knot winds and threatened to swallow her boat in 30-foot waves. “She was 35 miles offshore, alone, and it was heavy rain and wind. She was happy to see us; you could tell she was happy,” Weber says.

The rescuers saved the woman and her boat. That was a great day.

But then there was last month, when four commercial crabbers headed to the Rogue River bar off Gold Beach and were thrown from their 43-foot boat, the Ash, into rough seas and 18- to 22-foot swells.

Weber and his crew arrived and began sweeping the sea in stiff winds, with the help of two other vessels, including a fishing fleet volunteering to lend hands and eyes to the effort. Hours and hours passed as Weber and his team scoured the waves for any sign of the vessel or its crew. All that could be seen was a slick of oil on the top of the water, some plywood pieces that may or may not have been part of the Ash, and a tennis shoe.

Darkness came. Weber and his team, undaunted, donned night vision goggles and continued to scan the water. As the hours passed, the waves grew steeper and more unpredictable, arching and breaking too high and too close and too unpredictable. Finally, nerves well-jangled, the team called off the search for the night.

It was not a great day.

Still, Weber says, he reminds himself that he and his crew did everything they could, everything imaginable to find the Ash and the missing men.

While his family worries about him on some rescue missions — like maneuvering the unstable seas during the Ash search — he says they’re used to the idea after so many years of watching him go off to another work day.

And there are off-times when he can lose himself in other things, a game of basketball or, he says, “maybe some fishing.”

Jim McNamee
Transportation maintenance manager
Oregon Department of Transportation

Early in November, the sky opened up and would not be closed, pouring a bottomless supply of water into rivers and tributaries, urging them up, out and sideways in odd places no one frequents.

No one except Jim McNamee, who, like a night watchman, does his rounds in seasons like these. Regular as the rain, he supervised the White River as it struggled and lapped against its walls above the White River Bridge on Oregon 35.

Overnight, debris fell and accumulated, forcing the river to the top of the wall; McNamee knew this was the day it was coming down. He called for an emergency road closure, heavy equipment to try to shove the river back into line before it broke loose, and an evacuation in case prevention efforts proved fruitless. They did.

The river shot through the dam, blowing it away and carrying what an Oregonian reporter described as “car-sized boulders” and a wall of water and sand down the mountain, where it slammed into the bridge. Meanwhile, tributaries loose from their courses shot the earthen support out from under the roadway. Ten miles of highway was washed away.

For McNamee, who has seen plenty of washouts, “It was the worst I’ve ever seen.”

His next thought, “Oh my gosh, we have a lot of work to do.”

It began with clearing enough road to get stranded truckers down from the mountain and continued for weeks of 12-hour days marshalling machines and men to move the wall of rock and rebuild the highway.

The mammoth job, in freezing weather where even heavy machinery had trouble biting through frozen ground, took only four weeks, a jaw-dropping feat for anyone in road construction where simpler projects in better weather seem to take, well, months. Years, even.

McNamee, a 24-year veteran of disaster, says that despite the passage of years on the job, his wife still worries when catastrophe arises and his job is to be in the center of it, especially in places where there is no cell phone coverage. “I pretty much tell her — if you don’t hear anything on the news, I’m probably all right.”

But he admits he’s “trying to get better in my old age” at keeping in contact when he’s gone until after midnight six and seven days in a row.

In the end, a week earlier than predicted, the job was done, and McNamee and the work crews faded quietly into the background while Gov. Ted Kulongoski cut the ribbon on the new Oregon 35. “We let ‘im have the glory,” McNamee says. “He got to wear the hat.”

Coming home, he says, is the best reward after a period of chaos, and getting to delve in on — get this — a home construction project or two. “I like construction work, house remodeling. I like the finished product,” he says.

Sometimes, understandably, he likes to leave it all behind but not until the crisis months are past. “We’re going to Mexico in April,” he says. “Winter’ll be over here and nothing else should blow up…Hopefully.”

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