The Story of Harrisburg River Rescue
This article was originally posted on May 28, 2012.
It’s the dedication of the people who volunteer that make any organization what it is and what it stands for.
In today’s world where we have become so busy with our lives, we tend to lose the desire to work together for a greater good. That is until there is some emergency that causes us all to look at ourselves in the mirror and band together as “Americans” or a “Community” to set things right again. Then, as quickly as that great emergency seems to swoop down upon us, our focus fades, and we drift back into our everyday lives.
The dictionary defines volunteerism as “the act or practice of doing volunteer work in community service.” I consider true volunteerism to be a passion to serve the greater good of humanity, and the best work of life. In 1996, I became a volunteer on a scuba diving search and recovery team that was established and managed by a former state police officer. In 2005 the entire team joined Harrisburg River Rescue. Prior to that, I didn’t realize that River Rescue was a volunteer organization, even though I’d lived in the Harrisburg area for almost my entire life. I’ve come to realize over the years that there are many people who don’t know about River Rescue’s role in the history of Harrisburg. They know that we respond to water emergencies, but those thoughts fade away as waters recede or they walk away from the banks of the Susquehanna.
This is something that doesn’t bother us as volunteers. I think those of us who enjoy volunteering and working in this type of field feel proud to be the humble heroes who swoop in to save the day and then fade away into the sunset like a team of Lone Rangers. But what happens when there are no more Lone Rangers? You see, humble heroes aren’t very good at finding their own replacements. It’s not that they don’t want to. It’s that no one else seems to want to do the job.
I have been involved with many community and service organizations over the years and have come to the realization that they are all dying. Some more slowly than others, but they are all fighting a losing battle with Father Time. The parasite that is causing this painful death is “Lack of Members” or “Not Enough Volunteers.” I do not know of any organizations that are turning away people because they are pretty well set with who they have. The demise of volunteerism is leading to the death of many organizations that have been vital to the growth of their respective communities. Before I get too involved with my thoughts and feelings regarding this general issue, I wanted to take this opportunity to remind people of River Rescue’s contributions to the Harrisburg community over the years.
The establishment of Harrisburg River Rescue, a volunteer organization, was stimulated by a series of incidents in 1957 when seventeen people lost their lives in the Susquehanna River. In August 1958, a group of river enthusiasts, who had been becoming more and more concerned with the rising number of incidents, met to discuss ways to bring awareness to the dangers of the river and how to assist boaters in distress. On February 2, 1959, River Rescue was established, and in 1960 the organization was officially chartered and incorporated as Pennsylvania’s first water search and rescue organization.
Headquartered at the Harrisburg Seaplane Base at South Front Street in Wormleysburg, River Rescue undertook the responsibility of monitoring the safety of swimmers and boaters in the Harrisburg Area. Members, using their own equipment, patrolled the river and towed disabled boats.
In 1960, a sixteen year old boy named George Richard Oxley lost his life while attempting to rescue another boy at the Dock Street Dam. As a result of the incident, River Rescue added a water safety education and training program to its water rescue operations. Within a few years the organization distinguished itself as a premier training organization for rescue personnel.
In 1962 the training was tested as River Rescue was called to help with the infamous “Baseball Special Train Wreck”. A train heading eastbound from Harrisburg to Philadelphia derailed in Steelton on July 28, 1962. The train was carrying passengers to a baseball game between the Phillies and the Pittsburg Pirates. A few minutes after leaving the Harrisburg station, the last three cars of the train broke loose due to an unsecured track. The train cars knocked down three poles that supported high voltage power lines and plummeted down a 40 foot embankment into the Susquehanna River. Nineteen people were killed and more than 100 people were injured. At the time it was the worst rail disaster in Pennsylvania history. River Rescue aided in the search and recovery operations.
During that same year, River Rescue, which had outgrown its space at the Harrisburg Seaplane Base, moved to the upper floor of the bathhouse on City Island. The City gave their permission to use the boat ramp, and dock space was provided for rescue equipment. In September, City Council designated the organization as an “official volunteer city function” with auxiliary police powers. With these new responsibilities, the organization acquired the official support of the City in its river safety warnings and efforts. Also that year, the Ladies Auxiliary was chartered with the organizational purpose to “Raise money to buy equipment; serve food to the men while out on a call; and to offer radio communications when requested.”
By 1968 the organization had outgrown various definitions of its charter and it was re-chartered as a non-profit organization. River Rescue also became a member of the organization known as the “Dauphin County Mutual Aid Ambulance and Rescue Association”.
In May 1970, River Rescue began providing emergency ambulance service to the City of Harrisburg as a back up unit called the River Rescue Ambulance Association. The organization had a second hand ambulance that was used to meet the emergency needs of its member and it purchased another one in 1971. When other ambulance services went out of business and the city’s ambulance was damaged beyond repair, River Rescue became the sole ambulance provider in the Harrisburg area. The association consisted of paid and volunteer personnel and it was a non-profit organization offering continual emergency ambulance transportation.
Because of increasing services to the city, the growing membership of the organization, and an increase in equipment and apparatus, River Rescue once again needed larger space for its headquarters. In 1970 the Harrisburg Fire Department discontinued the use of the Royal Firehouse at 21st and Derry Streets, and gave River Rescue permission to use the building as its headquarters. However, the space would only be temporary because the building was “prohibitive” for occupancy. The temporary headquarters was used until 1978, when city safety inspectors finally gave notice to River Rescue to vacate the building as soon as possible to avoid any unnecessary accidents or injury.
The organization faced its biggest challenge in the summer of 1972. In June, a rare early season hurricane made its way up the Mid-Atlantic Region from Florida. In Pennsylvania, Hurricane Agnes dumped nearly eighteen inches of rain causing massive flooding and fires that destroyed 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses, and it left 220,000 Pennsylvanians homeless. In Harrisburg, the Susquehanna River swelled from its normal height of four feet to 32.57 feet with a water flow of 1,020,000 cubic feet per second. River Rescue rescued people from flooded homes, aided police officers in patrolling, and aided the fire department in fighting a fire which razed nine homes and could only be accessed by boats. River Rescue itself lost $118,000.00 worth of its special rescue equipment, including emergency trucks, three large boats with cranes, one floating headquarters, the shop and all of its docks. The organization received the Outstanding Service Certificate Award from the National Water Safety Congress in Washington, D.C. and a citation called “Operation Comeback” from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for its outstanding work during the flood. The organization was able to replace all the lost equipment and to purchase additional equipment through city, state, and federal grants and loans, as well as donations from the public. In the preceding years River Rescue was called upon nationally to assist with flooding caused by Hurricane Eloise in Florida in 1975, the flooding of Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1977, and it was on standby to assist with flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In May 1978 River Rescue move into a newly renovated 18,000 square foot facility. After nineteen years of being scattered over several locations, making it difficult to operate efficiently, the organization finally had a permanent home. The building located at Cameron and Sycamore Streets in Harrisburg, previously an Acme grocery store, was purchased for $165,000. Consisting of a social hall (capable of seating 350 people), four executive offices, one business office, a small meeting room, two bunk rooms, a lounge and kitchen for the ambulance crews, a communications center, a photo lab, a large shop, and a garage with seven bays, the building and property covered over three and one-half acres. River Rescue was housed there until September 2011, when flooding from Tropical Storm Lee made the building inhabitable, and the building was condemned. River Rescue has taken temporary headquarters in the old Brenner Dodge building on Paxton Street.
Since the spring of 1987, River Rescue, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boating Commission, has conducted an annual Water Rescue and Emergency Response training workshop. The program has trained and certified over 1500 police, fire, and rescue personnel nationally. It was instrumental in forming water rescue teams in the Wilkes-Barre, Johnstown, and Pittsburgh areas. The River Rescue Water Safety and Training Division is known and recognized throughout the country as one of the few professional, volunteer training organizations.
In January of 1991, River Rescue of Harrisburg, Inc. was re-organized into two divisions: the Water Safety and Training Division, and the Capital Region Emergency Medical Services. The Capital Region Emergency Medical Services division employed professional EMS Technicians to provide services to the Harrisburg area, through the River Rescue of Harrisburg, Inc. Both divisions remained non-profit organizations.
In 1996, in an effort to expand the funding capabilities of the Water Safety and Training Division, the Relief Association was founded. Two years later the organization officially changed its name to Life Team River Rescue and Emergency Medical Services, which later became part of the Pinnacle Health System. In 2006 Pinnacle Health decided it did not want the liability that comes with hosting water rescue services, and River Rescue re-organized and chartered itself again to become Harrisburg River Rescue and Emergency Services (HRRES). HRRES became a tenant in the building the organization once owned, but is now owned by Pinnacle Health System. Since the building was flooded in September 2011, Pinnacle has expressed no interest in rehabilitating it for River Rescue to use again.
There are many instances of minor and moderate flooding over the years that the Harrisburg area has come to remember. The early February thaw of 1996 saw a small iceberg float down the Susquehanna and take out two sections of the Walnut Street Bridge. In September 2004, the river reached a crest of almost 25 feet flooding out City Island and parts of Front Street, and in June 2006 the city was threatened with the bulge of 19 feet water. Each and every time River Rescue assisted the community with its needs.
The flooding that occurred in September 2011 as a result of Tropical Storm Lee took a great toll on not only the City of Harrisburg, but many communities in Central Pennsylvania. I’m proud to say that I, along with the other men and women who volunteer their time with River Rescue, slept on a concrete floor for three nights in a warehouse being used as our temporary facilities, during the week of the flood. As members of water rescue team answered numerous calls being dispatched to us, other volunteers packed up our headquarters in large trucks and moved it to higher ground.
I believe it is only a matter of time before another flooding incident threatens Harrisburg. Yet, today River Rescue’s livelihood is threatened by the lack of volunteerism and recognition in the community. My organization has few active volunteers and even fewer who are willing to do the time consuming work that fundraising requires. My organization has no home, and no real funding to buy one. There is talk that River Rescue may have to cease operation in the coming year, if the situation doesn’t improve. My hope is that by telling my community about River Rescue – perhaps reeducating them about its history, abilities and responsibilities – will inspire others to want to volunteer there. You too could join this team of Lone Rangers as help to resurrect this team of humble heroes.