Last Tuesday, from 1 p.m. to around 2:35 p.m., Armand Mendez was talking with me about his 26 years with Knox County Rescue (KCR). About 90 minutes later he was on a ladder on South David Lane in West Knoxville, stabilizing a Honda Odyssey van held up by guy wires and leaning very precariously against a utility pole, its front pointed skyward.
The terrified and unidentified driver, in her seat belt, could only see clouds.
Mendez, 46, was a first responder who helped stabilize this approximately 4,400-pound van so KCR Capt. Dustin Bolen and Rescue Tech Jeremy Vaughn could make it inside the van to bring the woman to safety and to her waiting husband. “She is a lucky lady,” Mendez said. “This could have been a lot worse. And she was not injured.”
No one knows why she ran off the road. Her van literally climbed a guy wire into the vertical position. Before anything could be done by first responders, LCUB (Lenoir City Utility Board) had to make sure there were no hot power lines involved.
“Right after we finished talking, I got an ‘all-call’ page. It took me 15 minutes to get there,” Mendez said. “When it was all clear I climbed the ladder to attach a cable from the winch on the rescue truck to a point under the van so it would not move or slip while the guys got her out.”
Rescuers were a little hampered until her husband arrived. The woman spoke no English, so her husband had to translate instructions to her on their cell phones. It ended well for her.
KCR Deputy Chief John Whited has known Mendez since the early 1990s and recruited him to the rescue squad. “Armand is one of the most skilled and experienced rescue members we have. You can depend on him, no matter the hour or day, to show his dedication to Knox County Rescue and Knox County citizens,” he said.
Mendez is an “Armand of all trades” at KCR, part of several specialty teams – heavy rescue, trench rescue, vertical rescue, search and rescue, water rescue and extractions. He has certifications in all areas and has also worked on rescue trucks.
Mendez has been an unemployed mechanical engineer since June 2020. thanks to Covid, when he was laid off by his Loudon County employer. Today he spends time rebuilding his home in Karns from top to bottom. He also makes furniture in his wood-working shop. Here are some other fast facts about this long-time and dedicated KCR volunteer:
- Has degrees in psychology and mechanical engineering from the University of Tennessee
- Longtime National Ski Patrol member who works weekends at Ober Gatlinburg
- Is a certified rescue diver who has helped recover victims from quarries, Norris Lake and other places.
Most remember the local flooding of February 2019. A man drowned when he drove his car into rising water at Ebenezer and South Peters Road on Feb. 25, 2019, and was trapped. Mendez was the first diver to reach the scene. After “gearing up” he dove under and found Christopher Doody, 59, unconscious inside his car. A second partially submerged car sitting on top of Doody’s car made the rescue even riskier. But it took Mendez only five minutes, he recalled, to get Doody out. He was taken to Parkwest Medical Center, where he died.
He’s seen and done a lot in 26 years with KCR. Has he had close calls or been scared? “No, not really and that’s because of the training we constantly get. When we train, we have a saying – ‘We all come home.’ We always have each other’s back.”
And he added: “I do love my rescue work. Not working now, it helps keep me going and I have the skills and abilities to do it. I’ll continue to volunteer as long as I can. It sounds corny but it’s true – I have a heart for others.”
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes – for KnoxTNToday.com. Suggest future stories at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 865-659-3562.