LEXINGTON, Ky. — It was just hours into what would become one of the state’s worst natural disasters when an assistant chief of the Lexington Fire Department approached Gov. Andy Beshear in the Frankfort emergency operations center and told him Lexington search and rescue teams — some of the most highly trained in the state — were heading south to flood-ravaged Eastern Kentucky.
It was much-needed good news, Beshear said.
“The message was clear: Help was on the way,” Beshear said Thursday at a special ceremony at the Lexington Fire Department honoring more than 50 Lexington firefighters. They had spent the past week in hard-hit Eastern Kentucky performing search and rescue missions and transporting patients who had to be evacuated from nursing homes and other health care facilities.
“With your special training we were able to reach people we would not have been able to reach,” Beshear said. “What you did was dangerous. It was special. It took an incredible amount of courage. This entire commonwealth is grateful and we’re also really proud of you.”
Beshear said “heroes” is an apt name for search and rescue teams who have worked nonstop over the past seven days.
The Lexington fire department teamed with units from Nicholasville, Richmond, Georgetown and other central Kentucky fire departments to perform search and rescue operations, said Lexington Fire Chief Jason Wells.
Some firefighters left early on Thursday and most returned Wednesday night. Six Lexington firefighters are still in Eastern Kentucky to help coordinate logistics and command.
“They made 130 rescues,” Wells said. Firefighters also checked more than 4,459 structures.
“Those 130 people would not have made it without you,” Beshear said.
As part of the recognition ceremony, Beshear made the approximately 50 firefighters Kentucky Colonels. Beshear said local rescue teams, the Kentucky National Guard, Virginia and Tennessee National Guard and Kentucky Fish and Wildlife made a total of approximately 2,000 rescues — some by air and some by boat.
That’s 2,000 people who now owe their lives to first responders, Beshear said.
Mayor Linda Gorton applauded the fire department Thursday and said it was one of the best trained in the state.
“I am very proud of all of you,” said Mayor Linda Gorton. “You are always people first. I cannot thank you enough for your service, dedication and perseverance.”
Firefighter Josh Day, a 16-year veteran of the department, spent Friday and Sunday in the Lost Creek area of Breathitt County.
“On the first day we were in boats,” Day said. “We saved close to 20 people, I think seven we air lifted out. The second day we were hiking the river banks more in a recovery mode and going through and looking for people there.”
Day said the loss and destruction in the area was gut-wrenching. It was also jarring to return to Lexington, just a few hours north of the ravaged creeks in Eastern Kentucky.
“It’s pretty devastating to see what those people were going through and to come back here and the world’s still turning. People won’t understand it unless they see it,” Day said.
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