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Civil engineers use 'dominator' for rescue

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AETCNS) -- Noah's Ark came to Keesler disguised as a big blue vacuum truck during Hurricane Katrina.

While preparing for the Aug. 29 storm, Keesler's 81st Civil Engineer Squadron loaded the tank of the "Dominator" with water to ballast the vehicle so it wouldn't be swept away by the anticipated flood waters. The crew never expected the huge vehicle to be used to rescue both the base's water system and two of its team members.

At the height of the storm, the 81st CES operations flight had to ensure the integrity of the base's water supply, including the emergency generators that were running the pumps and wells.

"I was really worried about sending anyone out into the rising waters and intensifying winds," said Maj. Jeff Szatanek, 81st CES operations flight commander. "But our guys had a job to do, and they hit the ground running."

Al Watkins, the base's utilities manager, and Master Sgt. Lonnie Bacon, noncommissioned officer in charge of electrical infrastructure, jumped into the Dominator to make the rounds and stabilize the water system.

Sergeant Bacon, who has experienced his share of hurricanes while growing up in Florida, was alarmed at the rapidly rising waters that skimmed the cab of the high-profile vehicle.

"I knew we had to keep things running," he said. "We knew we couldn't keep the base going without keeping the water flowing, and to do that, I had to keep the generators up and running."

"The base looked like an ocean," said Mr. Watkins, who said the storm surge from the Mississippi Sound to the south and Biloxi's Back Bay to the north pushed the flood waters up to six feet in many locations. "The water was lapping up to the yellow stripe at the top of the ball field fence."

Mr. Watkins and Sergeant Bacon had just returned to the 81st CES compound after making their rounds when a call came in that Dean Payne and James Bitton, two of the squadron's boiler operators, were trapped by rising waters at Keesler Medical Center.

Mr. Watkins and infrastructure manager Stanley Morgan grabbed a camcorder and digital camera to document the destruction as they jumped into the Dominator to retrieve their teammates.

"It was unreal how far the surge water reached and how fast it rose - I've never seen anything like it," said Mr. Morgan, who was working his fourth major storm since coming to Keesler.

The steam plant was crumbling, and Mr. Payne and Mr. Bitton had sought refuge in personal vehicles as the Dominator plowed through the water at the north side of the medical center.

Mr. Watkins positioned the truck to stem the impact of the wind and water. Mr. Morgan couldn't force the door open from inside the cab, so he rolled down the window to open the door from the outside. The door's metal frame buckled from the force of the flood surge as they pulled their co-workers into the two-person cab with them for a snug ride back to the compound.

"We weren't scared - the adrenaline really kicks in when you have a job to do and you know people are counting on you to get it done," Mr. Watkins said.

"In my book, these guys are heroes among heroes," Major Szatanek said. "The guys at the medical center made a heroic effort to keep the steam plant operating, and Mr. Watkins and Mr. Morgan were true heroes in risking their own lives to save other members of our team."
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