Key Largo firefighters’ dedication on display during recent high-profile tragedies

Two stories from the Upper Keys made international headlines since the year began, and each ended in tragedy. Both stories involved treacherous circumstances, dangerous assignments and brave first responders setting any concern about their safety aside to rescue others.

And when people in countries far and wide read about the incidents, they read the name of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department, whose members were at the center of these events.

On Jan. 16, firefighter Leonardo Moreno arrived at the Sexton Cove neighborhood responding to calls that four utility workers were likely trapped underground in a 15-feet-deep drainage hole. After calling down and hearing nothing, Moreno went down the hole without his self-contained breathing apparatus because he didn’t think he could effectively operate in the narrow confines if he donned his equipment. The 32-year-old, eight-year veteran almost died because of that decision. He was quickly overtaken by the same noxious fumes that felled three of the four D.N. Higgins workers in the hole.

Moreno’s colleague, Rafael Calante, was able to get his friend out of the hole alive, as well as two of the bodies of the dead utility workers. He, too, felt nauseous, but because he wore his self-contained breathing apparatus gear during the rescue, he was fine after receiving oxygen. Moreno spent a week in a mainland hospital room, at first in an induced coma. He quickly recovered and was released a few days later. He’s soon to be cleared to return to duty, said Chief Don Bock.

When the state Fire Marshal’s Office investigation into the incident is complete, the department is likely to face some heat for Moreno’s actions. As Calante showed, Moreno could have fit down the hole with his gear, after all. But he acted in the moment, springing to action, showing no hesitation to sacrifice his life in the line of duty.

Like many first responders, Moreno was trained to run toward situations most of us run from. Oh, and by the way: He and the majority of his colleagues don’t get paid. Let’s remember all of this before we criticize the department’s brass when the investigation’s complete.

Earlier this month, many across the globe were paying close attention to an expansive search on the ocean for well-known Canadian conservationist and documentary filmmaker Rob Stewart, who went missing shooting underwater scenes for a new film.

He made multiple dives that day at depths of more than 225 feet. The official search went on from Jan. 31 until Feb. 3. Stewart’s family and friends were going to continue looking for him, but the U.S. Coast Guard announced late that last day that it could not exhaust any more time and resources to the search — and 72 hours is usually the threshold.

But less than an hour after Coast Guard announcement, word came in over the scanner that Stewart’s body was found in deep water about 300 feet away from where his colleagues saw him last after he surfaced. Agencies looking for Stewart ran the gamut: The U.S. Coast Guard, the United States Navy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But he was ultimately found by divers with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department. They were about to give up for the day but, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle, they located Stewart and sent a man down to retrieve his body, providing at least closure for family and friends.

There are some things people should know about the fire department’s dive team. First, like the majority of the department’s men and women, they do what they do without pay. Led by Rob Bleser, whose day job is a dive shop operator, the team also foots the bill for its work. Team members are some of the most qualified divers in the Keys. They’re trained to go deeper than even the members of the Sheriff’s Office well-respected dive team. That’s why they were tapped to search the depths for Stewart.

Ike Beal, now retired from the department and who started the dive team “many, many moons ago,” said people should understand the magnitude of complexities that finding Stewart’s body entailed.

“This wasn't ‘the needle in the haystack,’ unless you figure the haystack was 200 feet high and miles wide in any direction with a current,” Beal said.

“Rob wasn't sure if this was his ninth or 12th body recovery, but each one has been a challenge to normal people, and I haven't seen anyone else offer or duplicate the feats that Rob has accomplished. Locating the bodies has been difficult enough, but he has coordinated the recovery dives to bring these divers back to their families. Both the victims and the recovery divers. By that I mean he has commanded recovery dives to a point he has made them as safe as anyone could under dire circumstances. I am simply blown away by his dedication, determination and perseverance. And all without one cent going into his pocket.”

We cover Key Largo’s fire department and the special taxing district that funds it like we would any other government entity — with objective scrutiny. Taxpayers’ money equips the firefighters, fuels the trucks and keeps the lights on at the stations, and the public deserves to know how their money’s being spent. The coverage can be critical at times.

In these instances though, the dedication, sacrifice and courage of Key Largo’s first responders were on full display. Key Largo, and the visitors to our chain of islands, were well served and protected by the men and women in the department and the Ambulance Corps.