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Dramatic rescue accompanies Maryland water main break

No one expected this flood.

Shortly before 8 a.m. Tuesday, a 66-inch water pipe burst near the swank Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington. Suddenly, fire and rescue crews who'd trained along the nearby Potomac River had to put the skills they'd learned on the river's treacherous rapids into practice on a suburban street.

Emergency tones began sounding at fire stations throughout the region, as the scope of the problem became evident. Firefighters, technical rescue squads, paramedics and helicopters converged.

The first ground crew on the scene was Engine 710 from a nearby Montgomery County, Maryland station. The engine company's lieutenant, Bill Phelps, told WUSA Television that they were fortunate to have their water rescue gear with them.

WUSA's David Statter, who's long covered the Washington area's fire and rescue operations, reported that Phelps was tethered for safety and then walked four victims out of their cars and onto dry land.

Montgomery County, through the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, maintains two water rescue strike teams, as well as an underwater rescue team, at two nearby stations. A flat-bottom boat was used to reach another stranded car, from which one or two passengers were rescued.

The Maryland State Police, which only three months ago lost one of its rescue helicopters in a crash that killed four people, dispatched one of its remaining choppers. The French-built Dauphin helicopters are typically staffed by a pilot and a flight paramedic. If necessary, they can lift up to 600 pounds.

The state police chopper’s big rescue Tuesday, though, weighed much less. In a hair-raising operation that was captured on video, the helicopter lowered a rescue basket to lift a driver and child out of a car that was being badly battered by water.

Elsewhere, a firefighter became stranded amid the swirling water. Enter The Eagle, a U.S. Park Police rescue helicopter based on the opposite side of Washington, D.C., in an area called Anacostia. Pilot Kevin Chittick and flight paramedic Jeff Hertel, each with more than 17 years of experience, were assigned the job of retrieving the stranded firefighter.

There were moments of high drama, for sure. But Park Police spokesman Lt. Dennis Bosack told McClatchy that the Park Police and Montgomery County Fire and Rescue frequently train together. The county is responsible for at least part of the river, which is entirely in Maryland, while the Park Service is responsible for the land on the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia sides. Bosack said that past missions along the river, and ongoing joint training, paid off Tuesday.

All told, rescuers brought between 12 and 16 motorists to safety. By 9:30 a.m., the operation was concluded, and at least some of the crews could start returning to their home stations and air bases, to await the next sounding of the tones.

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