Clarksville fire recognized for rescue

Three Clarksville firefighters were recognized this week and awarded with lifesaving awards from the department, for the July 1 rescue of a man from the Ohio River after the boat he was in malfunctioned and crashed. 

CLARKSVILLE — Three firefighters who aided in the rescue of a man in the Ohio River after his boat capsized in July have been recognized for their bravery and swift response.

Clarksville Fire Lt. Corey Potts, Sgt. Daniel Moody and firefighter Jason Whelan were members of the crew on duty the evening of July 1, when a 911 call came in from 28-year-old Levell Washington, who was stranded in the Ohio River after jumping overboard just before the boat he was in crashed into the McAlpine dam.

Washington and 26-year-old Donald Watson had been taking the boat out for the first time that evening when around 6:30 p.m., the engine failed just as they crossed into a restricted area past the Clark Memorial Bridge. Both tried to put their life jackets on quickly. Watson did not survive the crash.

When the Clarksville fire crew arrived just after the 911 call, Lt. Potts scanned the area and saw Washington in the middle of the channel, clinging to the life jacket, Clarksville Fire Chief Brandon Skaggs said.

"Corey [Potts] made a 'go or no' decision," Skaggs said. "[He] donned his life jacket and swam to the middle of that channel and secured that patient.

Meanwhile, the other two firefighters launched one of the watercraft and rescued both Potts and Washington. For their actions, they were each awarded the Clarksville Fire Department Lifesaver Award, and the whole crew was awarded with a citation for merit.

"I'm extremely proud of our department for being able to do that type of rescue," Skaggs said. "This type of rescue is extremely dangerous — especially on the Ohio River."

Responding departments — including Indiana State Police, New Albany, Jeffersonville and Louisville fire departments, Yellow EMS and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources — continued to search for Watson until dark and resumed again the next morning. His body was recovered by conservation officers July 3.

Skaggs said although the rescue was a success the firefighters deserve to be commended for, the loss is something that takes a toll.

"I wouldn't say you celebrate the lifesaving," he said. "You acknowledge it and you think a lot about the person that you didn't save. For me, I kept thinking about that all night long — that someone's loved one was in that water and we couldn't save them.

"It weighs on you — you try to do the best job you can and then just keep pushing forward."

The department has regular training for rope and dive rescue, with swim tests each year. Potts and Moody are among those in the department trained in swift water diving.

"It shows a lot of benefit from the training that the department has gone through," Clarksville Town Council member John Gilkey said. "I am exceptionally proud of their bravery and their skill in affecting this rescue."

Over the past decade, the town has allocated funding for the department to obtain some of the water apparatus needed for such rescues — this and the level of training the department exercises are of paramount importance in areas such as Clarksville, so near the water.

"We're right on the river and we have a number of large lakes in the general area. Its a very important skill," Gilkey said.

Aprile Rickert is the crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune. Contact her via email at aprile.rickert@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2115. Follow her on Twitter: @Aperoll27.

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