There’s Always One More
Make no mistake; this was a monster!
When it had formed out in the Caribbean, it had steadily grown from a Tropical Wave into a Tropical Depression. Moving as slowly as it was, it had plenty of time to build up strength once it entered the warmer waters of the Gulf; until what had been Tropical Storm Judith exploded in strength and fury into a Cat 2 hurricane in only a matter of hours!
And she wasn’t even done forming yet!
The latest information from the Hurricane Hunter planes of the Florida National Guard flying directly into the heart of the storm indicated that Judith’s classification needed revamping. The eyewall was compacting, the millibars dropping at an alarming rate! Readings of sustained winds upwards of 120 miles per hour were recorded, making her a Category 3 hurricane indicating that wherever she should make land, devastating damage would certainly occur!
And to make matters worse, the latest projections from The National Weather Service indicated an 80% chance that she would come ashore during high tide; the potential for record high storm surge levels causing catastrophic flooding to communities along The Gulf was imminent!
Twenty-four hours before she was due to make land, the evacuations began. From Pensacola to Apalachicola, mandatory evacuations of all persons living within fifteen miles of the shore went into effect. Soon Interstate 10 heading east towards Tallahassee turned into a massive slow-moving parking lot as vehicles flooded all major routes inland. Eglin Air Force Base outside of Fort Walton Beach saw waves of its planes taking off for fields further inland and out of the way of the oncoming devastation.
Fortunately—or unfortunately depending upon how you looked at the situation—the State of Florida had extensive experience with storms of this nature and magnitude. National Guard troops were already on station directing traffic, assisting in the directive of how all coastal communities were to be mandatory evacuation zones, establishing shelters, as well as stocking water, medicines, food, and other needed supplies throughout the area to make them readily available when required. Thanks to the efforts of power companies throughout The South, hundreds of bucket trucks manned by experienced linemen were parked in lots throughout Alabama and Georgia ready to move in and begin to restore electricity once the storm had dissipated.
By twelve hours before predicted landfall, there wasn’t a generator, piece of plywood, bag of toilet tissue, powdered milk, or gallon of gas to be found in the immediate area. And in case there was any doubt of the legitimacy of the alert, vans from that National TV Weather Station—where they are always telling people to ‘hunker down’—began showing up to find the optimum locations to film the upcoming disaster.
For Sergeant David Dittman of the Fort Walton Beach Police Department, he had seen it all before. A twelve-year veteran of the force, this would be his third major storm to contend with in addition to a number of less-damaging ones. Having already been at work for the past twenty-four hours, he was beyond tired; and with only six hours to go before what was now a Category Four Hurricane would plow through what was a pleasant seaside beachfront town, he knew he was in for one very long night, indeed!
The outer bands of Hurricane Judith were starting to come ashore now; drenching rain pouring out of the skies to pool anywhere there might happen to a spot lower than the next. Already, it was becoming increasingly difficult to maneuver one’s way through roadways inundated with so much water that compact cars were being abandoned as they could no longer make it through troughs of water as high as the tops of their wheel wells.
Taking a few minutes to run home, take a quick shower, and grab what may be the last meal he may have in quite some time, he needed every means possible to re-gather his strength and energy for the hours ahead. Knowing his wife Tricia’s tendencies to always find one more thing which needs doing, he was also home to personally escort her to the shelter where the spouses of the other Officers would be ‘hunkering down’ to safely ride out the storm. Well aware of Tricia’s kind heart, he anticipated having no less than four abandoned pets having been left behind in the evacuation which she had discovered while making one last tour of the neighborhood to transport to the shelter as well.
Okay…make that six!
Verifying how she had packed all of their pertinent documents and irreplaceable photos from their wedding and such, David noticed that the winds had increased dramatically from only a few minutes ago when he had arrived home. This was no great problem for his four-wheel drive police vehicle; but for Tricia’s two-wheel drive SUV, it was a constant fight to keep it on the road!
Listening to the squawking of his police radio during the drive, he could tell that this was going to be one very long night, indeed! People who should have gotten out when they could have, but paid no attention to the order to evacuate, were already calling 911 to come and rescue them! In many places, the rising storm surge had already cut off some of the barrier islands from any hope of reaching those unfortunate people who always think they know better—until the storm is actually upon them and they begin to pay less attention to their ‘hurricane party’ and more to the panic they are now experiencing!
Having arrived at the reinforced concrete one story structure which was to be the safe haven for the families of the first responders prepared to put their lives on the line for their community, David helped Tricia carry in what was now nine animals—she had seen three more on their drive and had stopped to rescue them.
He knew what was about to happen next.
Tricia threw herself into his arms, the tears flowing freely as she held on to him as tightly as she could. Like many of the spouses of The Officers, these days a routine day on patrol was something to be worried about; going out into a killer-storm such as he was about to do was pure madness!
Reassuring her that he would be fine…and that how he had already survived three similar storms since he had joined the force…and promising her that he would take no unnecessary risks; she pulled herself away to look into his eyes as she told him that she knows him well enough to realize that he doesn’t know how to do that! “You come back to me, David!” she pleaded; just before she was led away still in tears by one of the wives of another Officer who herself had just recovered from having to tell her husband goodbye.
One last look over his shoulder at the two women slowly walking away with comforting arms around one another, and David walked out of the shelter to face the killer storm and the unknown it would bring.
His normal patrol area was to the north of the city, where the promise of rural roads and numerous trailer parks assured him that he would be performing countless rescues this night.
He was about to call in and inform the Command Center that he was in route when the call which every Officer dreads came crackling over the radio. “Officer down…corner of Fairfax and Keating…shots fired! Repeat…Officer down in the vicinity of Kerrigan’s Jewelry…ambulance is in route. Approach with caution!”
Without even a thought, David flipped on his emergency lights, his vehicle gathering speed as he informed the dispatcher that he was responding! Realizing how he would be slowed somewhat by the roadway conditions and what would normally take perhaps eight minutes to arrive at the scene could take even longer, he threw caution to the wind as he plowed ahead as quickly as his vehicle could take him…for a fellow Officer was wounded and could lay dying in the cold clutches of this monster storm from hell!
Information was coming in how Officer Roland Jefferies had traded shots with an armed looter making his exit out of the busted store-front window! Having been hit in the upper torso, Jeffries had managed to drag himself behind his squad car for protection. He believed that he had hit the suspect with his return fire…possibly as often as twice. There had been no further threats coming from where the suspect was known to have gone down!
Announcing that he was on the scene, David could see the flashing lights from Jeffries car up in the distance. Instantaneously ascertaining the scene, David brought his vehicle to a screeching halt between where Jeffries’ car was shielding The Officer from any return fire and the store front where the suspect had last been seen. Exiting as quickly as he could, David’s service weapon was drawn and pointed in the direction of Kerrigan’s as he utilized the cover his vehicle provided to safely reach an unmoving Roland Jeffries laying prone behind the protection of his car’s rear tires.
He was alive! Badly wounded and bleeding profusely, Officer Jeffries was still alive! Grabbing the aid kit from Jeffries car, David managed to get a compress over the wound in between keeping an eye on Kerrigan’s should the suspect decide to come after them. Having managed to slow the bleeding, David relayed Jeffries condition and location to dispatch while off in the distance through the howling wind and rain, he could hear the sounds of approaching sirens. Setting himself into position where he could cover the store with his weapon, David waited for backup to arrive before advancing upon where a wounded gunman could be waiting with weapon in hand!
Not having time to put on his Kevlar vest, David used his position to cover the advance upon Kerrigan’s by the two newly-arrived Officers. Tossing a non-lethal Flash-Bang in through the broken window, the other two Officers rushed the store, bursting in…only to find the suspect lying on the floor having succumbed to two shots from Jeffries' 9-millimeter!
With Officer Jeffries on his way to the hospital in an ambulance, David had remained on the scene in order to make his report on the incident. Leaning against his vehicle as the adrenaline was wearing off, he was surprised to hear a female voice virtually dripping with disdain inquire of him “You boys using the cover of the storm to get rid of some undesirable elements?”
Shocked by what he had heard being addressed to him, he quickly realized that he shouldn’t be. His flashing lights revealed the figure of a well-known liberal reporter from a regional television station with umbrella in hand who regularly preached about defunding the police as they were nothing but opportunists who considered themselves to be judge, jury, and executioner.
Obviously disgusted by this turn of events, David turned away and began rummaging through a large duffel bag in his back seat while suggesting that she talk to the Departmental Information Officer so that she could get her facts straight. “The suspect fired first; the Officer returned fire in self-defense!” he told her none too pleasantly.
“But then, anything can be made to look like something it wasn’t, can’t it Officer?” she countered with. Showing interest in what he was doing, she next asked if that bag of his contained automatic weapons to be used at his next stop?
Grabbing the bag by the straps, he tossed it down on the street, the water splashing over her nice dry clothes. “Take a look for yourself,” he offered, secretly pleased at her reaction to getting soaked.
Examining the contents of the bag, the surprise she was experiencing by what she had found was evident in her asking “What is all this?”
“This is an equipment bag which I put together for nights such as this,” David replied as he showed her what ‘all this’ was. “As soon as I can, I’m heading up north to respond to the inevitable calls for people who need to be rescued. That is why I put together these life jackets, rope, and flashlights; they come in mighty handy in a storm such as we are to be hit by tonight.”
“But what is this for?” she inquired while holding up a small pink figure.
“You get very scared kids when they see the water rising and the adults are panicking,” he replied. “A teddy bear helps to calm them down so they can pay attention to what I am telling them and get them to safety A.S.A.P.”
“Well, I must say that I am surprised,” she said while handing him back the bear.
“Apparently you haven’t been around very many ‘real’ cops, or you wouldn’t be,” David informed her. “And before you start to look for another angle which isn’t there, where I’m going, there will be all manner of people needing help. When some mother is crying out for you to save her baby, you don’t look to see what color she is! You make the rescue, and then you move on to the next. Because if there is one thing you can be sure of on a night like this, there’s always one more!”
Getting into his vehicle, before he left to head up north and into the unknown, he scribbled down an address and handed it to the reporter. “If you want a story, this is where you want to be,” he told her while handing her the address of the shelter where the spouses and the families of those who were putting their lives on the line were to be found.
To say that it was a long night was scarcely an exaggeration!
Before he had even made it out of the town proper, Sergeant Dittman had received the locations of no less than three families who needed assistance. By the time he had gotten the first group to safety, three more were desperately waiting for his arrival!
And Hurricane Judith had yet to make landfall!
Through the long dark hours of the night…through the pouring rain and the howling winds…through dodging fallen trees blocking the roadways and avoiding downed powerlines, he fought through it all to reach those praying for a miracle. In constant contact with ‘The Cajun Navy’—a group of brave folks who had access to boats and volunteered to make water rescues or search through flooded areas to find survivors—he coordinated water rescues of families perched upon the roofs of their flooded houses! He made no less than twelve trips with a full vehicle to where he could give over the storm victims he was transporting to shelters or to waiting National Guardsmen in trucks big enough to get through nearly any obstacle. He was even saved from having to deliver a baby by the heroics of a brave ambulance driver!
And still he went back into it…because there was always one more who needed help...and there was no one else there to get it to them. The realization of how if he did not show up that people would die kept him going; feed off the adrenaline to make it through and worry about the exhausting physical payment his body would demand afterwards!
By about three that morning, dispatch had made the call that all personnel were to themselves head for shelter as conditions had worsened and it was becoming too dangerous for anybody to be out in the elements. This was the call the men and women in uniform dreaded; for they knew that there were more people in danger who needed their help but would be forced to ride out the mercy of the storm to see if they and their families would survive. Reluctantly, the recall was acknowledged by one Officer after another as they headed for the safety of the shelter and their anxious families waiting there.
In a matter of minutes, all Officers had acknowledged the directive and were headed in…except one. Sergeant David Dittman had yet to respond!
The recall directive was repeated, this time specifically to one David Dittman to drop what he was doing and get his tail to safety pronto!
This time he responded.
“Dispatch…I am 10-17 to a family stranded upon the roof of their collapsing home about to be swept away by rising floodwaters! I will be on-site in less than ten minutes, after which I will be returning to the barn. But I have to go! Tell Tricia that I’ll be there shortly; but before I can, there’s always one more.”
Sergeant Dittman never made it to the safety of the shelter that morning. In fact, he never made it home at all!
While attempting to rescue that family, a wall of water had descended upon the house from the swollen and overflowing creek bed nearby. Neither he nor the family he was trying to save ever had a chance!
While we may never know the reason why, a story appeared in a National Magazine written by a well-known detractor of the men and women of Law Enforcement everywhere. It was about the pain and suffering which the families of these brave Officers go through when they are in harm’s way in performance of their duties.
The title of this article?
“There’s Always One More!”
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You have a good grasp of how to keep a reader's attention to the end. Even thpugh we had the feeling it would end badly, we just had to keep on reading. That's a mark of a good storyteller. Keep it up!
Thank you so very much for your comments. I'm particularly fond of where you say "That's a mark of a good storyteller", for when I write, I try to do it from the perspective that I am telling a tale to the reader and they are not just reading words on a page.
Thank you for that amazing response! I'm glad you enjoyed the story...that's what I write them and my books for.