Wilmington water rescues

An air boat from South Bowers Fire Company in Kent County helps evacuate residents from Wilmington's East Side due to Brandywine Creek flooding

"We want to help people. We don't do this for the recognition or the credit. People need help. You go get them. That's what we're there for. We're there to get them out and get them to safety."

Bobby Maxwell is Coordinator for New Castle County's Surface Water Rescue Team (SWRT), a unit made up of over 60 certified technicians who are members of local volunteer fire companies.

Starting Wednesday evening, September 1, 2021, and lasting for about 18 hours, teams of surface water rescue crews and marine units from New Castle County traversed across parts of Chester and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania, back to New Castle County, and eventually into the City of Wilmington, rescuing dozens of people from cars and buildings stranded in high water.

Maxwell, and Dave Carpenter, Jr., New Castle County's Emergency Management Coordinator, had worked earlier in the day to make sure the unit was prepared for the eventuality of being called out with predictions of heavy rains, flash flooding, and storms from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

Initially, a group of 17 volunteers split into two teams headed to Pennsylvania where Maxwell said they faced heavy rain and flooded roadways, making it difficult to get from call to call.

"We probably made about eight calls," said Maxell. "It doesn't seem like a lot but it took us a long time to navigate the areas, to get around the roads that were flooded. So each call we were going to it was probably a half hour, 45 minutes just to get to it."

It was the middle of the night before most of the technicians returned home, only to have the SWRT activated again around 6 a.m. for the Rockland Mills condominium complex alongside the Brandywine Creek.

Talleyville firefighters arrived at the complex to find the Brandywine out of its banks and starting to fill the parking lot. 

Carpenter said some residents sheltered in place and others were evacuated with the assistance of the SWRT members and local marine units.

The Brandywine Creek was expected to crest just below its major flood level of 19 feet. It crested around 8 a.m. four feet above that.

And the Brandywine wasn't done, pushing a wall of water into the City of Wilmington and flooding areas along 12th Street and Northeast Boulevard.

By then, Maxwell had started his job as a Wilmington firefighter with Squad 4 and their first call was for a water rescue.

"Northeast Boulevard down [12th Street] towards the prison was already flooded," said Maxwell. "We staged our apparatus, blew up our raft, and from that point on there was people standing in the water and we were putting them in our boat and taking them to our staging area. Every time we went back there was somebody calling for help."

The county SWRT was called in again to assist the Wilmington Fire Department, along with marine units not just from New Castle County, but eventually Kent County as well, including an air boat from South Bowers Fire Company.

Maxwell said not only is the high water itself a danger, but what lurks within the floodwaters can be just as bad, if not worse.

"That's one of the biggest dangers of it, and we experienced it on every call we went on in each geographic area we went to," said Maxwell. "Once the water gets a certain level and everything comes from a river, comes from people's back yards and comes from their front yards, you name it, there's something coming down the street that you're on.

"It could be a log, a car, a trash can, gasoline. There's all kind of contaminants in there," he added. "We have protective suits that keep us protected from any contaminants but the unknowns that you can't see that's underneath or what's floating on top you've got to try and avoid."

There were no reported injuries among first responders during the water rescues.

"There was a lot of debris and stuff that was really hazardous to us that we avoided."

Maxwell said the emotions of those who were rescued ran the gamut.

"We had very happy people that were glad to see us and some still had a sense of humor. They were making us laugh, we were making them laugh."

It's estimated about 200 people were safely evacuated in Wilmington.

TrafficWatch & News Reporter for WDEL/WSTW 1989 - 1993 and back again for Round Two starting in February, 2015 after spending a decade in Chicago and another six years in Boston.