Behind The Badge: Rescuing The Rescuers

The flood of June 2008 will be slow to fade in the memories of anyone involved in it. People of all walks of life came together and helped those in need. While the government agencies were out in full force, ordinary citizens rose to help their neighbors and strangers alike. During the crisis the Indiana Conservation Officers (ICO) performed at heroic levels in conditions that would chill the blood of any sane person. Tirelessly the crews rescued stranded families (and wildlife) from the dark, cold flood waters, just to repeat it moments later. Their efforts didn’t stop at sunset. With airboats and searchlights they continued on. But, despite the best equipment and training, things happen that are beyond mans’ control.

Sunday night, the 9th of June, ICOs Mac Spainhour and newlywed Nate Berry were dispatched to an automated 911 call from a home near Cortland in northern Jackson County. All attempts to verify if the emergency call was valid, failed. The only way to answer the call was to take an air boat across the flooded Muscatatuck River. Normally the river was small and lazy, but with the high rainfall it covered thousands of acres of farms and woodlands. Hilltops were islands and fence rows became deadly snags.

Mac and Nate launched into the murky darkness and headed across the treacherous currents using a spotlight to light the way. After a period of time, the two ICOs reached the isolated home that was safely above water and still had power. The roar of the airboat brought out the homeowner, Tony Machen, whom also was an airboat owner. Mac and Nate explained to Tony that they were getting a distress call from his phone. Tony acknowledged that his phone and fax were malfunctioning but he and his wife did not need assistance. As the ICOs were leaving they remembered that retired ICO Bill Aufenburg lived nearby. Tony knew Bill and directed them to another “island” about a half mile away to the east.

The two men sped across the flood waters and visited with the retired ICO for a little while to make sure everything was alright. Ironically, Bill was also an airboat operator. Finding everyone safe and secure Mac and Nate headed back south. It was then that things went terribly wrong.

As they made their way across the fast moving current in the darkness, Nate tried to pick the best way through the flooded tree and fields. “Hold on! Nate yelled above the motor. “I’m going to turn around!” As the top heavy craft turned sharply, the right front quarter dug deep into a trough of water. Instantly water started filling the boat, causing it to tip further. Mac watched the water rush in like a bad dream. This can’t be happening, he thought, the boat will right itself! The dream turned into a nightmare and within a split second the airboat capsized. Mac leapt away in hopes that he wouldn’t get trapped underneath it or get hit by the spinning propeller. As Mac came up, the current had already swept him ten feet away. He could see the shadow of the crippled airboat and the head of his partner. “The boat has me!” Nate yelled out. “It’s taking me under!” Then Nate disappeared.

Mac closed his eyes against the muddy water and kicked out as hard as he could, desperate to reach his helpless friend. But, when he opened his eyes again the boat was even farther away. To make matters worse things were tangling his legs threatening to pull him under. Having always been one to be in control of any situation, Mac refused to give up. “I tried swimming again as hard as I could.” It was no use. The current was taking him farther and farther away. Mac realized there was no way to help Nate. It crept into his thoughts that Nate was most likely already gone.

“By that time my energy was already spent,” Mac remembered. “Thank God we have excellent equipment. I had my swift water rescue vest on so I rolled over like I had been trained.” It was then that Mac heard a small miracle. “Mac! Mac! Come back to the boat!” It was Nate! He was alive! “I can’t!” Mac yelled back. (Nate had pulled his life vest free of the craft.)

As Mac was pulled farther away and into the unknown, his mind raced. He thought of his family and his life. (Oddly, Mac remembers thinking how pretty the night was.) Still the fighter, Mac tried to remember the layout of the terrain. Fences could be a death trap if they snagged his legs. “I am a realist,” Mac said. “I don’t sugar coat things. I realistically gave myself a twenty-five percent chance of living.” He remembered thinking that this could be the end, but he still wanted to do everything he could to stay alive. Mac hoped to grab a tree as he went by but even as he spotted trees in the moonlight, the current was too fast for him to react.

Unknown to Mac, Nate had left the relative safety of the airboat and was trying to swim to him, but he was beginning to fear that Mac had drowned. By swimming with the current Nate overtook Mac and yelled to him in the darkness. Miraculously they actually found each other in the darkness.

Elated that they both were still alive, they started figuring a way to rescue themselves. Latching hold of Mac’s life vest so they wouldn’t be separated again, Nate asked Mac if his radio still worked. Incredibly, as Mac pulled it from the water the display was still lit. With a prayer he keyed the mic. It worked! In seconds they relayed their situation and position to their fellow ICOs.

While help was on the way it was going to be an eternity before anyone else could get there, and every split second gave the raging current an opportunity to change their fate.

Suddenly the two felt ground underneath them as they passed over a rise, just enough to dig their heels into. Clinging to their position, Nate’s youthful optimism started to rise. “We’re going to get out of here, Mac! You’re going to see your family again!” Nate looked back across the water at the soft yard lights in the distance. “Willy’s going to help us.” The realist in Mac kept him from hoping like Nate. “Willy, can’t help us,” Mac stated. “He’s not in good health and he doesn’t have any equipment.” Nate, still optimistic, spotted the home of the other airboat operator in the distance. “I think that guy is going to come out here!”

Mac looked, fearful to get his hopes up. To his surprise Mac thought he could see someone in the yard light a half-mile distant…

Unknown to Mac and Nate, Tony Machen had heard the sound of the airboat as it capsized. As an experienced airboat operator he knew trouble when he heard it. Going out into his yard he listened above the thousands of chirping frogs and rushing water and heard one faint yell. Tony went back in and told his wife that something was wrong and he was going to take his airboat out to see.

Nate and Mac watched as Tony launched his airboat. Nate turned to Mac. “Do you still have your flashlight?” Miraculously the accident had not knocked it loose. Grabbing the light Nate used his extra height to flash it at Tony as he searched the dark waters for the two men.

ICO Spainhour and the remains of his airboat.

Seeing the light, Tony killed the engine and attempted to paddle to them but the water was too swift and he zipped right by. After anxious moments Tony fired up the engine again and headed back towards the two water logged men. “Just run me over,” Mac yelled, “and I’ll grab hold and climb in!” It was Nate that got in first and jumped to Mac’s aid, pulling the ICO aboard. Safely aboard, the trio headed back to Bill’s house and waited for help.

A hero is a common man who does uncommon things. For his bravery Tony received an award from the Indiana DNR Law Enforcement and the state F.O.P. When Tony went to receive his award in a strongly emotional event he received a standing ovation. Countless officers personally shook his hand, thanking him for saving two of their own.

To Tony, Mac, and Nate, the people of Indiana thank you.