CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Airmen Brandon Miles and Roderick Jones could only laugh as the flood waters filled their guard shack in the aftermath of Typhoon Neoguri last week.
They had already torn through the drywall and moved into the ceiling, removed some metal brackets and clawed through a layer of foam.
As they looked at the reinforced concrete roof just above their heads, then down at the rising waters, they knew that getting out was out of their hands.
They had about a foot of airspace left, and it was shrinking.
“That’s all it was, was praying,” Miles said Monday, still trying to process their dramatic rescue. “Praying and motivating. Trying to calm each other down.”
The two airmen first class in the 18th Security Forces Squadron had stayed home as Neoguri pummeled Okinawa on July 8, then headed to guard duty at Kadena Air Base’s munitions gate at 10:30 p.m. as the worst of the storm passed and headed toward the Japanese mainland.
But heavy bands of rain continued to pound the area; the total at Kadena would reach 37 inches.
“It started raining once we got on shift,” Jones recalled.
They hadn’t seen a car in hours when they noticed water was creeping up to their door at about 6 a.m.
“All of a sudden we just heard a rush of water,” Miles recalled Monday.
By then it was too late to flee.
A river the two friends couldn’t see behind the guard shack had flooded, sending a cascade of water toward them. It met water coming from a bridge in front of them.
The surging water started climbing up the outside walls and quickly seeped into the 10-by-5-foot building. The men called it in and got ready to leave.
But “the water pressure had kept the door closed,” Miles said.
All of the roads in the area had flooded, so rescuers had trouble finding a route to the shack, said Master Sgt. Brad Reeves, who was among the first group of security forces and firefighters to arrive.
As lightning flashed overhead, bolt cutters took care of the lock, and the rescuers swam to the guard shack. They dove down and tried unsuccessfully to break the glass and open the door. Jones and Miles tried to shoot out the windows. No luck.
A rope was tied off on high ground and attached to the roof of the shack so the rescuers could transport tools to cut a hole.
“The water level was 10 feet high,” Reeves said.
Inside, Jones and Miles tried their best to stay calm.
“I would freak out and he would calm me down, and he would freak out and I would calm him down,” Miles said. “We both had our points where we thought this was it.”
Jones head-butted the sheet rock ceiling and made an indentation. Miles began clawing at it. Jones helped him make a hole and they began pulling it down. They moved up into the ceiling, buying time as the water poured in. But their hearts sank when they hit the reinforced concrete roof.
Outside, assistant fire chief Master Sgt. Aaron Duggins and Tech Sgt. Joseph Flores of the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron arrived, carrying a K-12 fire rescue saw to cut a hole in the roof.
“We try to be optimistic and a lot of times we say we’ll do whatever it takes at all costs and we’re always going to be successful, but the reality is in our profession we’re not always successful,” Duggins said. “I was not 100 percent convinced that we had enough time to get it done.”
Rescuers were starting to make progress on the roof when the saw’s internal belt disintegrated, rendering it useless. So they grabbed axes and sledgehammers and frantically tried to smash through. It was tough going.
The airmen told jokes and prayed as their prospects looked increasingly grim.
Suddenly, Jones and Miles saw light above, but the hole wasn’t big enough to crawl through. Duggins pondered fashioning snorkels for the two men out of radiator hoses from a fire truck.
Jones and Miles cheered their rescuers on the rest of the way.
Jones was the last to be pulled out at about 8 a.m. His nose was up against the ceiling and he had about an inch of air left at the time. Duggins said that within minutes the shack was completely submerged.
“None of the rescuers on scene had life jackets; we didn’t have helmets; we didn’t have scuba equipment; we didn’t have snorkels, and so these rescuers who showed up that day put their lives on the line to save these two guys,” Duggins said.
Miles and Jones said they can’t believe how close to death they were. They laugh about it now — just as they did then — but mostly because they don’t know what else to do.
Jones said they are trying to go around the base and personally thank each rescuer.
“Sometimes he’ll just look at me and shake his head, and I’m like, ‘Nothing but God bro, nothing but it,’” Miles said. “We’re blessed.”