Nine members of the Baltimore County Police dive team who swam through sewage-tainted, raging floodwaters during Tropical Storm Isabel to rescue others received the Medal of Honor, the department's highest honor, yesterday.
Many of the divers worked for more than 24 hours -- some as long as 36 hours -- to evacuate residents from their flooded homes in September. Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan, who presented the awards with County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said that the officers rescued more than 100 people and that without them, "we may well have had a fatality."
The dive team, a part-time unit that conducts underwater operations along the county's nearly 200 miles of shoreline, was created in the early 1960s, but its members have never encountered anything like Isabel, said Sgt. Wayne T. Lloyd, a police diver for 30 years.
"It was beyond belief," he said, describing a scene of filthy water, high winds and streets-turned-canals.
Lloyd led a group of divers who rescued residents stranded in the badly flooded Bowleys Quarters area of the county.
He said the team found one woman in her 40s, terrified and stranded with her cat, on the upper level of her house. Roiling waters shook the foundation of the old shore house, he said.
"Every time a wave hit, it was like an earthquake," he said.
Near Millers Island, Sgt. Christopher S. Wrzosek, led a team that he estimated rescued scores of people the night of the storm. Everything was dark, he said, except for sparks from downed power lines.
That light revealed a frightening landscape: Propane tanks spun and hissed as they rolled past the boat; sewage and garbage floated along the watery streets; and stranded families waved frantically for help out of their flooded, destroyed homes.
To fit one family -- including an infant -- into the crowded rescue boat, Officer Arthur M. Erdman stayed behind at the house, while Officer Roland J. Greenwalt Jr. floated alongside the boat, Wrzosek said.
Other dive team award recipients were Cpl. Daniel L. Kramer, Officer John L. Kramer, Officer Bradley J. Lewis, Officer Robert L. Warnic II and Officer Tommy J. Yi.
"What you did on that night ... shows our best at their best," Smith said at yesterday's ceremony. "You saved lives at the risk of your own."
When the exhausted team returned to the marine and aviation police building at Martin State Airport about 4 p.m. the next day, they realized they weren't quite done with Isabel.
The storm had flooded the team's office building with 3 feet of dirty water, ruining furniture and destroying files.
"All kinds of trash had floated into the building," Lloyd recalled.
For the next two hours, divers cleaned up as best they could, returning Saturday to complete the task. Still, the building had to be renovated, displacing the dive team until mid-January, Lloyd said.
"I never thought I'd be involved in something of this magnitude," he said. "I still can't believe the conditions we went through."