When Petaluma firefighters Luis Chairez and Adam Rich arrived at a vehicle crash on Lakeville Highway near Highway 37 in May, they found a car, halfway submerged and upside down in an irrigation canal, with no people in sight.
"We didn't know if there was someone in the car or not, but we felt like we had to double-check," said Chairez, who has been a firefighter for 10 years.
Because of the rural location of the accident, Chairez and Rich responded to the call alone, and had to decide a course of action by themselves. "We were out there, all alone for awhile," said Rich, who has been a firefighter for nine years. "Volunteer agencies eventually responded, but it took a long time."
When the two young firefighters made the decision to check the vehicle for survivors, they faced a daunting task. Most of the overturned 2006 Audi A4 was submerged in five feet of water. According to Chairez, dirt in the ditch had combined with the water to create a thick, sludgy mud that had sealed all four doors shut tightly.
"There were no bystanders to tell us if anyone was trapped inside or what had happened," said Rich. "So Luis (Chairez) and I made an action plan and got to work."
Quickly, Chairez helped Rich get harnessed up to a "tagline" rope tied around his waist, and Rich began diving using the department's breathing apparatus — something Chief Larry Anderson said is not an easy task.
"While all our guys are well-trained with the apparatus, they don't spend a ton of time practicing with them," said Anderson. "These devices are clumsy and difficult to use, but Adam and Luis (Rich and Chairez) remained calm, took a calculated risk and did a great job."
Chairez and Rich were dismayed to find that after working hard to extract the driver and her dog, both were already dead. But even so, the two men were proud to hear that they had received the Petaluma Firefighter of the Year award from their peers and command staff for their efforts.
"It really means a lot to us, when we know that we haven't been here for very long yet," said the 31-year-old Chairez. Chairez and Rich, both married fathers of three, only started with the department two and a half years ago.
"We feel lucky to be making a difference in this community and are honored that our coworkers noticed," added Rich.
Unlike many other firefighters, neither Rich nor Chairez had wanted to be a firefighter when they were kids. Both men were working on other careers before going into the fire service.
"I was working at a nursery owned by a volunteer fire chief," said Chairez. "He thought I would be good at firefighting, and told me so. I was only 19 at the time, but I listened to him and he turned out to be right."
For 30-year-old Rich, whose father was also in the fire service, the move to fighting fires came after a stint playing college football. "I realized it was what I wanted to do and have loved every minute of it," he said.
Both men said that they hope to continue working their way up in the Petaluma Fire Department. "We just want to be the best we can be at our jobs," said Chairez. According to their peers, they're off to a good start.