Cincinnati firefighter rescued Hurricane Matthew victim whose story went viral

Drone caught Grant Light saving Chris Williams
Posted at 4:52 PM, Oct 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-13 20:19:15-04

CINCINNATI – A Cincinnati firefighter didn't immediately know he was one of the heroes of an Internet story that went viral after  Hurricane Matthew last week, when he rescued a man and his dog from their flooded home.

It's an incredible, made-for-Hollywood tale involving a drone and a one-in-a-million chance - a stranger's Twitter photo seen by the victim's brother a thousand miles away.

"We had no idea of the back story," Light told WCPO. He found out the rest of the story after it splashed across the web and was picked up by TV and newspapers worldwide.

Light was in North Carolina with Ohio Task Force One – 80 firefighters who volunteered to rescue people stranded by floodwaters. Light said he and Craig Mignon of Columbus were patrolling in a small boat in Hope Mills, North Carolina.

By coincidence, local photographer Quavas Hart was flying his drone over the flooded area.

None of them were aware – yet – of Chris Williams' plight.

As it turned out, Hart's drone not only set off an improbable chain of events, it caught the entire rescue on video.

Trapped in his house, Williams had called his brother, Craig, in Texas and told him that the floodwaters had him stuck on the second floor.

"It was so deep, if I went downstairs to the bottom floor, I probably would have been 5 feet underwater," Chris Williams, a former Marine, said after he was rescued.

Chris' brother thought he would comfort him by emailing a photo of flooded houses he found on the Internet.

Man, at least you're not in that deep, Craig said with the photo.

But Chris was, in fact, in very deep.

And this is where the story gets really crazy.

Chris immediately recognized the house.

"Dude, like that's my house!" Chris called back to his brother.

Astonished, the Texas man tweeted Hart, the drone operator who posted the picture.

"That's my brother's house – the one with the shutter," he tweeted. "Any chance you can boat him out of there? He's trapped upstairs."

That's where Light and Mignon came into the story. Some media reports say Hart contacted FEMA and FEMA sent a boat to rescue Williams. Other reports said the Ohio firefighters followed the drone to the house, like the biblical Three Kings following the North Star.

That's not exactly what happened, according to Light.

Light and Mignon had already been sent to Williams' street – not to rescue him, but a family living next door, Light said.

"Three kids and a lady in the house next door. That's where we were going," Light said. "We were not actually going to his house … We were told to go next door."

With the shadow of the drone at left, firefighters Grant Light and Craig Mignon rescue Chris Williams and his dog.

Light said they traveled 3 miles upstream through woods, using maps and iPhone GPS, to find the neighborhood. When they arrived, Williams was "hanging out the window," Light said.

'We said, 'Are you all right?' and he said, 'Yeah.'

"We asked, 'Are your neighbors here? Have you seen them?'

"He said, 'No, I don't know anything about them.'

"We basically pulled our boat right up to the front door and he walked out and handed us the dog. We got the dog in the boat and then he climbed in the boat and we took him to shore."

"Shore" meant the end of the street, which was dry.

Light and Mignon checked on the neighbors' house and didn't find anyone.

"Once we had that all completed, we radioed in and they gave us another location and we went all the way back downriver to get back to where we started."

Light said he and Mignon were happy to have helped Williams.

"It was a good day at the office – a really good day," Light said.

Chris Williams and his dog appear happy to get to shore.

After six days of working on two hours' sleep, battling swift currents and unfamiliar terrain, Ohio Task Force One came home Wednesday. Their reward was in rescuing 75 people and 46 animals from 49 separate buildings.

"It’s been a great deployment.  We helped a lot of people. That makes you feel good," said Light.

"I’m not going to lie to you. It felt amazing," said Mike Lotz, another member from the Cincinnati Fire Department.

Lotz said years of training paid off.

"Within six hours of arriving in North Carolina, we were on a pretty swift area that had been flooded in a neighborhood and we were able to get four people that had been trapped six hours in shoulder-deep water," he said.

Jeff Newman of the Sycamore Township Fire Department recalled many elderly people — some in wheelchairs, some using walkers — who were in great danger.

"There was a gentleman in a house.  He was half in the water, half on his couch, had hypothermia, hypoglycemia, and we had a medical team member in the boat at that time that they were able to get this gentleman (and) bring him back to shore," Newman said.

"It was very tough, but it was the most rewarding (experience) that this team has had in quite a long time."

READ more about Williams' rescue at WCPO's news partner,