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Jerry Davich: Snowstorm reveals first-responder character

Liberty Township volunteer firefighter Scott Kleckner his girlfriend South Haven firefighter Morgan Eastridge jumped inactiaboard snowmobiles. | Phoprovided

Liberty Township volunteer firefighter Scott Kleckner and his girlfriend, South Haven firefighter Morgan Eastridge, jumped into action aboard snowmobiles. | Photo provided

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Updated: February 11, 2014 6:17AM



I’m convinced that dealing with a crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it.

This old adage proved true again during the wicked snowstorm that battered Northwest Indiana earlier this week. In many ways it defined who we are as individuals and as a region.

Take, for instance, the efforts of Liberty Township volunteer firefighter Scott Kleckner and his girlfriend, South Haven firefighter Morgan Eastridge. They were among many first responders across our region who jumped into action on Sunday when the blizzard-like conditions created mass chaos for snow-blinded motorists.

“Porter County police could not reach them and they gave us their blessings in rescuing some of these folks,” Kleckner told me.

Kleckner and Eastridge donned their firefighter gear, jumped on their snowmobiles, and volunteered to help rescue stranded motorists. They weren’t ordered to do so. They didn’t do it for any financial incentive. They could have simply gone home, stayed warm and hunkered down for the night as I did, and probably as most of you did, too.

Instead, they rode their snowmobiles to County Road 700N, just south of U.S. 6, in Portage, where several motorists were reported stranded, including Darla Kupsis of Valparaiso, who I wrote about in my Tuesday column.

“The people we encountered were stuck in their vehicles for three to eight hours,” Kleckner said. “We found people sleeping in their vehicles, windows frosted over, their cars were out of gas.”

“Some folks hadn’t had food or water since breakfast, while others were returning from the grocery store,” he added.

Kleckner and Eastridge transported eight appreciative motorists from their stranded cars along County Road 700N to awaiting firefighter personnel, who then took them to the South Haven fire station for food, drinks and shelter.

“The snow was so deep that at two particular times our snowmobiles became stuck,” Kleckner said. “Two South Haven fire vehicles also became stuck on 700N and had to be pulled out by a tanker.”

“The open fields made it easy for wind to sweep across the road causing drifts 3 to 4 feet high. Cars and trucks were literally encased in snow,” he said. “Never have I seen a situation where people’s lives were in danger by Mother Nature, as it was here.”

That is quite something to say for a firefighter, yet there they were doing whatever they could to help others in need. Some may say that’s their job — as first responders — but I disagree on this particular night during this particular snowstorm.

They volunteered to offer assistance, something I didn’t do that night or the following day when temps dropped to minus 10. How about you?

A few firefighters were manning the Liberty Township station that night in preparation for the predicted storm and its impact on the community. They did so to maximize their response times to any calls, and it obviously worked.

“We’re volunteers, so we don’t do it for the money,” Kleckner pointed out. “We do it because we love helping people and, even in 5-degree weather, the gratitude we saw when rescuing these people warmed us up and made us keep going.”

The polar-opposite “first responder” reaction also took place during the snowstorm, I later learned from other residents’ disappointing experiences.

For example, a Crown Point man contacted me to say he was “held hostage” to pay a tow truck firm for towing a vehicle adjacent to his on the night of the storm.

“My car wasn’t stuck, but I was trapped behind other stranded cars,” he told me angrily. “Still I was forced to pay this tow truck firm before they would let me pass by.”

He called it “flat-out price gouging” and he’s convinced he was taken advantage of, though he ended up paying the tow truck firm what they asked.

“I had to get home, you know,” he said with a sigh.

Such crisis situations — whether it’s during a snowstorm, an autumn flood or a summertime blackout — are ideal barometers to measure who we are as individuals.

Oh, sure, it’s easy to do the right thing when everything is going OK, under normal circumstances, and there’s no personal risk involved. But when the stakes are raised by Mother Nature or other factors, how many of your chips remain on the table?

Do you help others or just help yourself? Do you circle the wagons to protect only your loved ones, or do form a posse to rescue others in distress? Do you volunteer for action without hesitation, or do you hide behind handy rationalizations?

This scenario reminds me of those New York City firefighters who hustled up the stairs, not down, in the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

It also reflects my favorite definition of the word “ethics”: To do the right thing when no one else is watching.

That’s exactly what Kleckner and Eastridge did that night amid a blinding blizzard, joining countless other region residents who performed similar acts of heroism. You can call it simply doing their job, but I call it a job well done.

Their efforts revealed their character, as only such fight-or-flight first responses can do.

“It’s the love for helping others that fuels our passion,” Kleckner told me. “It’s what we train for. It’s who we are.”

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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