Hero West Midlands firefighters rescue dozens from floods in Bosnia

The off duty fire fighter had just finished mowing the lawn at his Black Country home when the call came from UK International Search and Rescue.

Forty eight hours later Watch Commander Russ Gauden and the rest of the 33-strong squad that included two more West Midland firemen had rescued 42 people and led 52 others to safety from floods that killed at least 34 people more than 1,500 miles away in Bosnia.

Among those saved from the 12 feet deep water were 18 women aged over 70 who could not swim. Several had broken limbs while others were suffering chest pains. Some were in difficulty in the water.

A lone child was rescued from a flooded building and handed over to their family. Three more children and their mother were carried to safety from a single storey building.

Four needed medical treatment from the crew who scoured a 10 mile stretch of flooded land. They also saved at least one pig and several dogs.

Tragedy struck in Bosnia after three months of torrential rain fell in a matter of days last month triggering 3,000 landslides, destroying villages and leaving tens of thousands of people homeless.

The Search and Rescue squad, made up entirely of firefighters from 15 forces in England, Scotland and Wales, was the first international team to arrive in Bosnia and were immediately rushed with four inflatable boats and other equipment to the north east of the country which had suffered worst in the disaster.

One of their many skills is quickly replacing communications destroyed in disasters, arriving at disaster scenes armed with a satellite computer system, sat phones and other gadgets needed to build their own network.

The squad flew from Manchester to Sarajevo in a specially chartered plane and were taken by military convoy to their destination that had been identified by local emergency planners.The team set up a base in an old school gym in the town of Bijeljina where they arrived exactly 24 hours after receiving the call for help. The first rescue was carried out in the pitch dark shortly afterwards.

Crew Commander Shammi Rana, 44, father of two year old twins old father of twins from Cannock who is based with the West Midland Fire Service Technical Rescue Unit at Wednesbury said: "There is no doubt that people would have died without our help. We saved a lot of lives. You make the odd rescue when working as a fire fighter in this country but it fills you with pride to make that number of rescues within that sort of time frame."

Mr Rana, who has also dealt with the aftermath of earthquakes in Haiti and Indonesia as well as the Japanese tsunami, explained: "A mile from our temporary base the road was engulfed by water that stretched as far as the eye could see across hundreds of miles after two rivers burst their banks. We deployed the boats and headed for nearby villages where people were hanging on roofs and out of windows.

"We ferried them back to the road where the locals carried them away on tractors and other vehicles and then set off to rescue more survivors. Some of the farmers thought their pigs and cattle were more valuable than they were and wanted the livestock rescued first while they continued to cling to the roof."

Father of four Mr Gauden, aged 42, who lives in Brierley Hill, has been in the fire service for 20 years and since joining the rescue team in 2003 has been sent to help in the aftermath of an earthquake in Haiti and a tsunami in Japan.

He said: "It is surreal to have such a profound change of circumstance when you move from home to a disaster zone in such a short space of time change of situation. It was desperate. Many, many people were struggling and in need of international help. Some were on the roof of their home while others had put themselves at risk by entering the water, even though they could not swim. We faced a few difficulties, including language barriers, heat and long hours but there is a huge sense of personal satisfaction when you come home knowing that you have done a good job."

Watch Commander Jeff March, a 52-year-old father of two from Alvechurch, stationed at Billesley, who has been a member of the search and rescue team for the last seven of his 24 years service as a fire fighter and deployed to earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand. He said: "I got the call at 9pm and was in Bosnia with a full team and all the equipment at 4pm the next day. It is always distressing to see people whose lives have been destroyed but the speed with which we deployed meant that we could make a massive difference to a large number of lives."

UK International Search and Rescue gives round the clock 24-hour-a-day all year cover on a rota system that ensures at least 36 specialists are available at any one time for overseas deployment. They are all volunteers and arrive in a disaster zone with enough supplies to be self sufficient for ten days in everything but fuel.

Following the rescue phase of the Bosnia operation, humanitarian efforts took priority. The team distributed water, food and medicines to those who were cut off but refusing to leave their homes. They also helped restore the supply from two power stations inundated in the flood, ensuring that homes and farms had electricity as the water receded. Then the team headed for home just a week after arriving.

West Midland Chief Fire Officer Phil Loach said: "This latest deployment is yet another example of how our fire and rescue services can come together quickly to deliver much needed, professional expertise and help to people in desperate need."