When Paul O'Brien arrived in Franklin at 1 a.m. last Saturday, fallen trees littered the roadsides and water lapped against the foundations of houses near the National Guard Armory.
The damage that greeted O'Brien and 11 other members of the Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad gave only a hint of the devastation they would encounter in the flood-stricken southeastern Virginia mill town. Over the next 72 hours, the group patrolled the submerged streets by boat, containing floating fuel barrels, helping police investigate a report of looting and even rescuing a puppy.
"There were residents in the armory parking lot when we arrived, and we told them we didn't know what we were facing," said O'Brien, 37. "We waited until the sun came up, and we could see that we had our work cut out for us."
O'Brien and his colleagues--members of a state task force trained to handle mass emergencies--were called out the afternoon of Sept. 17 and hit the road that evening. Always ready to head to any disaster in the state with three hours' notice, the task force keeps a trailer packed with supplies that include bottled water, batteries and sleeping bags.
Loudoun's rescuers were among the first outside of Franklin's local departments to arrive in the town, where the Blackwater River surged over its banks after heavy rains from Hurricane Floyd came on the tail of the downpour brought by Hurricane Dennis weeks earlier. The town's historic district was under more than 10 feet of water.
Most residents had reached high ground, but the challenge for rescuers was to contain the hundreds of fuel tanks and barrels that bobbed in water already contaminated when the sewage treatment system was washed out. Smoking was banned within 100 feet of flood waters.
Leaks from the fuel tanks that were dislodged from local businesses and homes created a "witch's brew," said O'Brien, who works as a sales and marketing consultant for an Internet security company.
Some task force members set out in the team's boat to gather the barrels while others secured tanks that were brought in and washed down rescuers who had been in the water. Part of the Sterling crew plucked a black Labrador from the second floor of a flooded house and delivered him to the local animal shelter.
Last Saturday night, the group ferried two police officers to a submerged home to investigate a breaking-and-entering report.
After dinner at a local church and a few hours' sleep on the armory floor, task force members spent last Sunday patrolling a flooded residential community, checking on people who had stayed behind on higher ground and ensuring that no one remained stranded.
"It was pretty amazing," said Sterling volunteer Andrea Walter, who works with a Maryland-based company that provides technical support for emergency service providers. "I'd never been in flood condition. It's a strange feeling to be driving down a residential street on a jet ski."
The trip marked the first deployment for the task force, which was formed last year, said its commander, Sterling Volunteer Rescue Chief Byron Andrews. The group's members are all trained medical rescuers. In addition to the task force members, two other Loudoun rescuers went to Franklin as part of a group that helped coordinated all emergency resources.
CAPTION: Rescuers head out in a boat to retrieve fuel barrels from the submerged streets of Franklin, Va.
CAPTION: Andrea Walter, left, hoses off a Labrador plucked from the second floor of a flooded house. Loudoun's rescuers were among the first to arrive in Franklin, Va., above, where the historic district was under more than 10 feet of water.