Fire Official Drowns While Rescuing Flash Flood Victims

A Mid-Missouri fire official drowned Monday while rescuing two people from a flash flood, according to a statement.

Assistant Chief Matthew Tobben of the Boone County Fire Protection District (BCFD) drowned while assisting the Columbia Fire Department (CFD) with an early-morning rescue operation when his inflatable rescue boat capsized, Fire Chief Scott Olsen said. The two evacuees and a CFD firefighter were rescued and “doing ok,” Olsen said.

The rescue boat lost power, prompting Tobben and the CFD firefighter to call out a mayday, BCFD assistant chief Gale Blomenkamp told reporters, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune. The boat, likely becoming adrift, could have struck debris, he reportedly added. The boat then reportedly capsized, throwing all four persons overboard.

Tobben unsuccessfully attempted to grab a tow line while in the water, Blomenkamp told reporters, according to KSDK News’ footage of the press conference. Rescuers later found Tobben’s life jacket and helmet floating downstream but it was not clear whether Tobben shed them or the force of the water stripped him of them, Blomenkamp said. (RELATED: Death Toll Hits 149, Over 2 Million Affected Due To Severe Flooding)

Tobben’s death was “a big hit to the community and the fire service” as there was no “more highly trained individual than Matt Tobben was for this type of situation,” Blomenkamp reportedly said.

Tobben had served with BCFD’s Urban Search and Rescue Missouri Task Force 1 since 2012, was a 19-year veteran of Missouri’s Union Fire Department, and had served in search and rescue missions across the country, Blomenkamp said, his voice quivering with emotion.

“He just recently got hired here to be our training chief. He actually started on May 1st, so, two months is a pretty short time… He was very well-credentialed,” Blomenkamp said.

Tobben reportedly rescued a motorist from floodwater May 3.

The Missouri State Water Patrol had begun investigating Tobben’s death, Blomenkamp revealed.

Tobben’s death marked the second death in a week following flash floods from heavy rains throughout Boone County, the outlet reported. The floodwater affected roads and trails.

Urging vigilance, Blomenkamp reportedly warned, “When it comes to a flash flood, they move very quickly. Water rises fast and goes down fast. People need to be aware of that and pay attention. When we say, ‘Turn around, don’t drown,’ that is what they should be doing.”

Tobben’s wife and his two young children survive him, Olsen told reporters.

Olsen announced Tobben’s death “with great sadness,” adding, “Please keep his family in your thoughts and prayers during this very difficult time.”