A Firefighter/Paramedic's Journey (Continued from Home Page)
Rosie and his partner already had done their preflight equipment check-over. This was his very first helicopter rescue after a lengthy training rescue program with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. An Engine Company already had determined that sending a rescue team down the side of the wet, slick cliff was too dangerous for everyone. How the father and son had even gotten to their treacherous position was incredible.
"I never let anything hold me back.
I never gave excuses."
"All my experiences were meant to be," is how firefighter and paramedic Rosie Henderson sums up his life.
It was a time of change when Rosie was born in 1960 in the small town Northeastern Mississippi town of Clarksdale. Clarksdale was situated right at the infamous intersection of highways 49 and 61, known by many as the "Devil's Crossroads" in honor of famed blues guitarist Robert Johnson. "Tossin' and Turnin'" and "Hit the Road Jack were playing on America's radios when Rosie came into the world, but most of this deep south state was still playing its out-of-tune, archaic Jim Crow song.
"I was born in a Mississippi still mired in old time segregation at the start of the 1960's," Rosie commented. "My mom single-handedly raised 5 kids. We were real close to my grandparents. My grandfather was a Mississippi bootlegger and county employee. He was quite a guy. Bootlegging whisky was how he managed to raise 8 kids. My grandparents owned their own home, a rarity for blacks back then in the south. That was a happy home, and the music – man. My grandparents had amazing neighbors and friends. Famous blues player Howling Wolf, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cook and BB King were in and out of that house." Clarksdale was imbued with so much history of the blues that the Delta Blues Museum, the state's oldest music museum, is located there. Its slogan sums it up, "Located in the land where blues began".
"When I was in the Illinois projects,
I did not know anything about being poor.
Everything seemed rich to me."
"My grandfather marched with Martin Luther King in the 1960's. One day, he was sprayed with water by white firefighters in the south. He came home soaking wet when I was three. I asked why he was so wet."
"So, often when I am hanging from a helicopter cable, diving off of a fire boat, or reviving a smoke inhalation victim, I still can have a flash from those long ago Mississippi days and feel proud of what I am doing now."
"I must say, I was focused as a kid, thanks to my mother and my grandparents. When I was in Mississippi I did not know anything about being poor. When I was in the Illinois projects I did not know anything about being poor. Everything seemed rich to me."
"I never let anything hold me back. I never gave excuses. I got all the education to be the best that I could be. I was even a Los Angeles County Fire Department Explorer Scout. I was proud to have the freedom to be able to do what my grandparents fought for. My accomplishments are what they wanted to see happen. Now, my thing is giving back to the community. I did not forget anything. I give motivational speeches in classes, here in L.A. and in Illinois."
Growing up with the charisma of a talk show host and the build of a former football high school star that he was, Rosie considered more than one career.
"I had this dream of becoming an actor, back in Illinois. I came out to California with no money or anything and hit acting," Rosie remembered. I got lucky for two or three years doing a bunch of commercials, Miller Beer and Great Western Bank. I also did a lot of stand-up comedy work in popular clubs. It gave me confidence in dealing with all sorts of situations."
"I took that money I made from acting and got my mom out of the projects and into her own house."
When the Hollywood climate changed and gigs slowed down, he answered a radio announcement calling for firefighter applicants in 1992. He had loved what firefighters represented ever since he was a little boy; his best pal's father mesmerized him with his firefighting stories.
Rosie took the tests and waited. He became one of the first African-Americans hired by the Alhambra Fire Department. "My mission was to be the best that I could be. I felt I deserved to be there," he commented.
His striving and focus brought more rewards. One day, the Los Angeles County Fire Department called, offering him a job in Los Angeles County. He was ready. He had studied and passed all the qualifying L.A. County exams. Ladera Heights Fire Station 58 was his first choice. He has been a member of that team now for 13 years.
"I'm proud of what I do and the opportunity to make a difference every day. The comradery of my fellow firefighters is a special bond. We never know what is coming when that alarm sounds in the station, but we always know we will be looking out for each other, as well as those in harm's way. I'll never forget that little kid from Clarksdale, Mississippi and realize how far I've come."
The Crew Chief ordered the helicopter pilot to reduce speed to 40 knots. Rosie was in his harness, connected to the woven stainless steel hoist cable. The huge starboard side door slid open. He was hit with the roar of the dual Pratt & Whitney jet engines along with the pummeling downdraft from the crafts's spinning 46-foot diameter rotors. He wiped dancing water droplets from his goggles.
The Crew Chief said to get ready for hoist. Rosie and he exchanged two thumbs up. Rosie grasped his harness. Now, it was all up to him, and the Crew Chief guiding the skilled helicopter pilot .
"I'm hooked to the hoist cable and slowly being lowered into this storm of noise, wind, and spray", Rosie says, gesturing. "The pilot comes in over the ocean and the Crew Chief directs him into position toward the victims. We're getting closer and closer to this terrified man and boy wrapped around each other on the high cliff. The rocky surface of the cliff looks dangerously slippery; a helicopter rescue was the right solution."
"I glance down and it's a different world. People in boats and in backyards are casually snapping photos."
Rosie descends over 100 feet beneath the helicopter. He has a clear view of the huddled father and son. He radios the Crew Chief, "'I'm going for the kid first. Lift me up over father.' I'm close enough to be able to shout through the wind and engine noise to tell the kid not to move or do anything. The pilot is carefully making adjustments on his approach. He gently lines me up, as I get nearly on top of the man, who is grasping his son."
"I shout to the father over the engine noise and downdraft that I'm going for his son first. I yell for the kid to hold still. His eyes are wide in fear. Just as I start to secure him against me and maneuver the Cearley strap around him, the hoist cable pulls me away. I shout through the wind for the boy to let go and wait."
(The Cearley rescue strap is a lifesaving 5 to 7 foot heavy duty fabric webbing with a loop at each end to wrap around a victim and secure the person to the helicopter hoist hook).
"The pilot adjusts his position again. I get a good contact and a good connect. I grab hold of the boy, wrap the Cearley strap around him, secure it to my hoist hook, and give a thumbs up to the Crew Chief to hoist us up. The Crew Chief directs the pilot to flat ground above the cliff. I unhook the Cearley strap and a paramedic grabs the boy."
"I stay harnessed to the cable and we go back to the side of the cliff to get the father. The poor man was terrified. I told him not to move.
I was able to grab him on the first pass. I gave the signal and the helicopter headed back to the landing area above. People were looking up and clapping in their backyards and on boats."