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Brandenburg Lake rescue

A firefighter uses a ladder truck to cross a body of water near Brandenburg Lake on March 14. It was part of first reponder efforts to rescue people stranded in the Bellwood Lakes area due to flooding. 

First responders throughout Butler County had their hands full last week as a result of the historic statewide flooding, but locally, the hardest hit areas were located along the lakes just north of Bellwood.

On the morning of March 14, Fire Chief Matt Gangwish and other members of the Bellwood Volunteer Fire Department began going door to door asking residents around Bellwood Lake to voluntarily evacuate. Gangwish said the area was completely cleared without incident.

The Bellwood Fire Department was soon joined by David City Fire Chief Matt Hilger and the David City Volunteer Fire Department for the operation. Also assisting was the Butler Sheriff's Office, Butler County Emergency Management and the Rising City Volunteer Fire Department.

Hilger said the first responders moved to evacuate the homes along Brandenburg Lake. Due to the weather and nearby rivers overflowing, he said they struggled to reach people at first.

“The waters rose so fast and they were so rapid that getting airboats in there wasn't going to work,” Hilger said.

So a ladder truck from David City was bought in to reach people on the eastern side of the lake and assist in bringing them to safety. Gangwish said 14 people were evacuated from the eastern side of the lake on Thursday, March 14, along with several dogs. However, two people refused to leave their homes.

Those rescued were transported to an American Red Cross relief shelter at the Fire Hall in Bellwood. Gangwish said the community came together to supply people with food, blankets and cots. Most individuals who were evacuated eventually left the shelter to stay with people elsewhere, but three ended up staying the night and left the morning of March 15.

As the day continued March 14, rescuers attempted to reach people on the western side of Brandenburg Lake but were unable to find a place to safely cross with the ladder truck. It was then the Nebraska National Guard was called into airlift people to safety with Black Hawk helicopters. This rescue attempt had to be postponed due to high winds and was resumed the morning of Friday, March 15.

With better weather, the helicopters were redeployed. The National Guard first swung by Brandish Lake where 13 people were rescued. Rescuers then circled back to pick up seven people from the western side of Brandenburg Lake they failed to reach the day before. Three people were also picked up from a residence across from Nebraska Highway 15. All people were dropped off at a landing zone that was set up along Highway 15. Hilger said he was impressed with the work of the National Guard.

“They went straight to business,” Hilger said of the military organization. “Very impressive, those guys have their ducks in a row for sure. We were so impressed with how quickly they get everyone out.”

After March 15, Gangwish said no more rescues were conducted in Butler County. On Sunday, March 17, several residents returned to their homes at Brandenburg Lake to pick up supplies, but Gangwish advised against returning to the area at this time because several roads were washed out.

Gangwish said there were no reported injuries during the rescues, adding his thanks to other area first responders and the community for coming together to help during this natural disaster.

“Everything went safely and it was a very organized rescue,” Gangwish said. “And I hope I never have to do that ever again.”

Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at eric.schucht@lee.net

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Eric Schucht earned his bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Oregon in 2018. He has written for The Cottage Grove Sentinel, The Creswell Chronicle, The Pacific Northwest Inlander and The Roseburg News-Review.

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