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Jacksonville's dramatic rescues caught on camera

News4Jax given exclusive access to never-before-seen video of JFRD in action

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They cheated death and escaped the most deadly situations. News4Jax gained exclusive access to video some of the most dramatic rescues in the history of the Jacksonville Fire-Rescue Division from the perspective of the firefighters who save lives every day. 

JFRD was formed in the 1850s and firefighters have been very busy. JFRD's men and women go on more than 100,000 emergency calls a year, everything from car crashes to heart attacks.

While each rescue is important and each rescue is memorable, these were some that stood out

1989 Dames Point Bridge rescue

For those who grew up in Jacksonville, the 1989 Dames Point Bridge rescue is something they'll never forget.

911 caller: "I have a bridge inspector truck. It has become badly disabled. I have three men hanging in a bucket and one man went out into the water... Man fell out into the water. He is now on the shore and three men are still in the bucket."

The man who fell survived and swam to shore. The other three were left hanging 150 feet above the St. Johns River. A special team of firefighters trained in high-angle rescues rushed to help, rappelling down to the men below.

The time was tense because the bucket could have snapped at any moment.

Bruce Boyles found himself dangling helplessly from a harness.  News4Jax spoke to Boyles about this rescue that happened more than 20 years ago. He'll never forget what was going through his mind.

"I was thinking, 'Jeez, I hope it doesn't get any worse,' like the rest of the rig collapsing into the river. Fortunately, I had a great deal of pain to distract me from thoughts like that," he said.

Boyles said he never doubted he would make it out alive. It took two hours, but JFRD hoisted him up very slowly to safety. His two colleagues were rescued, too. 

Boyles' message all these years later to the firefighters who rescued him is simple, but heartfelt.

"Just gratitude," Boyles said.

1994 Cathedral Towers high-rise fire

A fire quickly spread through the Cathedral Towers high-rise retirement home in downtown Jacksonville. Dozens of elderly residents were trapped 18 stories up. A desperate 911 call came from a woman trapped on the top floor.

Resident's call to 911: "Please get to the 18th floor."
911 operator: "Ma'am, we are going to get to you, OK?"
Resident: "Please, please. It is getting worse! It's terrible! Oh God, I don't want to go this way!"

Flames spread through Cathedral Towers with a vengeance. Firefighters rushed to the rescue, leading the residents out one by one. They gave oxygen masks to some while carrying others who were stricken by smoke.

"We just couldn't even breathe. And I knew I was just going to die right there," a resident told News4Jax the night of the rescue.

Ambulances rushed two dozen people to the hospital, including a firefighter. JFRD's quick action and rescue efforts resulted in everyone surviving.

Capt. Video: The man behind JFRD's camera

The dramatic images captured come from the lens of Capt. Rob Sorensen. He spent 43 years with JFRD, nearly two decades filming videos to be used to train future firefighters.

"Every day I would wonder what is it going to be today? Because every day is different. And no two days are alike," said Sorensen.

He says he loved doing it.

"Helping people. It's so rewarding to do that," he said.

Sorensen is now retired and works with the family business, Firehouse Subs. But he'll never forget the thousands of rescues.

1963 Hotel Roosevelt fire

The most memorable and very tragic emergency call was the 1963 fire at the Hotel Roosevelt Downtown. Nearly 500 people were trapped inside. Sorensen was a rookie at the time.  Firefighters did everything they could.  

The U.S. Navy flew eight helicopters to pull guests off the roof.  Twenty two people died in that fire, including a firefighter. But rescuers saved 475 people, a remarkable feat in one of Jacksonville's worst fires.

Archive footage of 1963 fire

"Knowing that our training, we train a lot, and we are good at what we do and being able to produce people from the jaws of death, I mean, literally pulled them out, an instant before it is too late and get them out of there that is very very rewarding for me," Sorensen said.

WATCH: Part 2: Jacksonville survival stories

2003 rescue of man trapped under limestone 

An example of a call JFRD doesn't get every day was a young man by the name of John Opp who was trying to make his way back home to Minnesota. so he hopped on a train that came through Jacksonville.  But Opp was riding on a bed of limestone.

Without knowing Opp was on it, crew members dumped it out. It left him surrounded by tons of gravel. He could barely breathe and his legs bent backwards.

Firefighters started using 5-gallon buckets to dig Opp out, while the pressure was making it hard for him to breathe.

"[Without oxygen from firefighters] he just would have suffocated. And it is a miracle that he didn't," said Sorensen.

Sorensen remembers the tense moments. He filmed every minute of Opp's rescue. Firefighters used a harness and eventually pulled Opp out. Firefighters bought him a meal and bus ticket to get home, the right way.

News4Jax spoke with Opp after that rescue years ago and asked him if he'd hop a ride on a train again.

"Nope, that's not an option anymore. No more train rides," he said.

Car trapped in hole filled with yellow jackets

A memorable rescue was a father and son trapped in their car, which was stuck in a hole filled with thousands of yellow jackets.There were enough to kill someone.

JFRD used a winch to pull the car a little bit away from the nest so firefighters could use fire extinguishers to get the insects away. The father and son were safe in the car until the yellow jackets found a way to get inside.

Extra video: Yellow jacket rescue

"They started attacking them inside. And we did not have to beg him to come out then. They were out of there before you could turn around," Sorensen recalled.

Almost every firefighter there got stung, but everyone went home safe.

1996 Westside store roof collapse

A mother and her 4-year-old son where trapped in 1996 when the roof of a store on the Westside collapsed.

"Occasionally, I would hear the lady do a little moaning. I never did hear the baby. I just assumed the baby was gone," said Sorensen.

Stuck under so much weight, rescuers used every tool imaginable to get the mother and son out. First, the mother, and then the 4-year-old.

Firefighters were amazed the boy was alive under all the debris. It took some time, but they got him out safely.

2002 sewer incident in San Marco

It was a race against time. Three contractors were working in a sewer in San Marco when they passed out from fumes and went into cardiac arrest. Rescuers had to pull the men out fast, and they did, bringing all three of them back to life.

"We had a lot of good happy endings," said Sorensen.

Jacksonville firefighters have saved tens of thousands of lives over the years, but when people can't be rescued or don't survive, it takes its toll.

But firefighters always try and focus on the positive, using videos like the ones Sorensen captured to train and keep the community safe.

More memorable rescues and classic images from JFRD's archives:

Slideshow: Vintage Jacksonville Fire Department photos
Fire-Rescue videos: Feet trapped in auger | Trapped between concrete slabs |
Goodby's Creek Marina boats burn
VIC MICOLUCCI'S REPORTS: Part 1 | Part 2