Benefield: SRJC swim champion Eric Gromala using his skill for water rescues
Eric Gromala swam into the trailer and found an elderly woman holding her head above rising water with about a foot of breathing space left.
She was standing on what Gromala guessed was her now-submerged bed, tilting her head at an awkward angle so that she could take in air. Furniture, uprooted by floodwaters, floated around — making it difficult for Gromala to reach her.
When he did, it was hard for Gromala, an engineer with the Forestville Fire Department and a member of the swift-water rescue team, to assess how the woman was doing or how long she had been in the cold, dirty water.
“I couldn’t talk to her much,” he said. “It was both panic and shock and the water was pretty cold … she was in the water quite a long time. She was passing out when we were swimming to the shore.”
Gromala, 35, a former high school swimmer at El Molino and a 2004 state champion breaststroke specialist at Santa Rosa Junior College, has been a member of the water rescue crew since he joined the Forestville Fire Department full time in 2006. His services were in high demand last month as the Russian River rose to historic heights, causing massive floods and stranding people in homes and cars.
“The water came up quickly overnight,” Gromala said. “Everyone was sleeping and when they woke up, they realized they were flooded in.”
Gromala temporarily hung up his firefighter turnouts and pulled full-time water rescue duty.
“There were three or four days of being pretty busy,” he said.
When Press Democrat photographer Chris Chung captured the moment Gromala and fellow Forestville engineer Spencer Hansen rescued Jack Hulsey, 86, from his flooded home, Santa Rosa Junior College swim coach Jill McCormick reposted it to her team’s Instagram account. One of the hashtags she used was “#bearcub4life.”
In addition to swimming the breaststroke leg on the 400-yard medley state champion relay team, Gromala was a six-time All-American in 2004 as he studied to become a firefighter. And, according to McCormick, something of a legend.
And not necessarily for his swimming prowess.
Teamed up with his brother, Ian, Eric Gromala was a prankster a level or five beyond typical team hi-jinks.
Like the time McCormick walked onto the pool deck at the Quinn Swim Center on campus and didn’t see her standout breaststroker readying for practice.
“I said, ‘Where’s Eric?’ and all the guys are laughing and I’m trying to figure out where he is,” she recalled.
Eventually, she looked up.
Gromala had spider-climbed — a la American Ninja Warrior — between two concrete pillars that supported the ceiling and was perched about two stories above the pool deck.
“He was strong enough and athletic enough to get up there,” she said. “Everybody is laughing except me.”
Or the time he and his brother rewired her car so that when she used the turn signal, the windshield wipers went on, or when she turned on the headlights, the horn sounded.
“She had a rough time with us,” Gromala said.
Even when she thought she had their number, they did an end run. Like the time Gromala and some other swimmers snuck out of their hotel rooms. When they returned, they spotted McCormick parked out in front of the rooms eyeballing the doors. So they climbed in through an open back window.