Seven years later, remembering EMT Michael Kenwood

Michael Kenwood

Letter to the Editor:

This week is one of remembrance for the members of the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad for it was seven years ago on August 28 that we lost one of our own during a swift-water rescue attempt. The following is a representation of who Michael Kenwood was to us and a description of the tragic events that surrounded his death. As always, we keep his wife Beth, daughter Laney, and other family members in our thoughts and prayers.

In a letter describing a car crash that left him badly injured shortly before his high school graduation, Michael Kenwood wrote, “I swore to myself that if I lived, I would learn the skills to care for myself and others should another medical emergency ever confront me.” He kept that promise, becoming an emergency medical technician (EMT) in college, and volunteering his time to help his campus community.

His desire to give back continued long after his college graduation. Despite a budding career, as a practicing attorney and owner of an information technology consulting business, and commitment to his wife and daughter, Michael sought opportunities to help others. One way was by volunteering with the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad and becoming trained in technical rescue disciplines (motor vehicle extrication, ice rescue, confined space rescue, and swift-water rescue). As an EMT and technical rescuer, Michael’s courage, determination, and coolness under pressure were evident as he provided care for victims of life-threatening medical emergencies.

Such was his intention on the evening of August 27, 2011, hours before Hurricane Irene wreaked extraordinary damage on the town of Princeton. After ensuring that his family was safe, Michael drove to PFARS  to offer his assistance. He was not scheduled to be on duty, but he knew that as a swift-water rescue technician, he had the skills necessary to help those who could be affected by the looming storm. His colleagues at the Squad were happy to see him. Though he had been with PFARS for only three years, Michael was unflappable, and his acts of kindness and bravery made him a beloved member of the EMS family.

At 4:38 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2011 at the height of Hurricane Irene, PFARS was dispatched to Rosedale Road in the area of the Stony Brook for a water rescue. When the crews, including Michael, arrived on scene, they found a sedan partially submerged in two feet of floodwater about 70 yards from the water’s edge. Emergency personnel were unable to see whether the vehicle was occupied, and after repeated attempts to signal to the vehicle, the vehicle’s rear tail lights began to flash.
Believing that people might be trapped inside, Michael and another swift-water rescue technician entered the water at 5:05 a.m. and proceeded halfway to the vehicle before they both were swept from their feet by a rush of water.

A haul team was unable to pull them back to shore and Michael was caught underwater in a stand of trees. The haul line was cut to free him from the trees and he was carried approximately 100 yards downstream with the current. When rescuers arrived, they found Michael in cardiac arrest. Emergency personnel on scene worked feverishly to save Michael, performing CPR and rushing him to the University Medical Center of Princeton. Michael’s heart was restarted, but he remained unresponsive.

As word of the incident spread, Michael’s family and friends gathered in the intensive care unit of the hospital, utilizing every resource they could to find passable roads and flights to get to his side. Everyone prayed for him to regain consciousness. He never did. Late in the evening, Michael succumbed to his injuries. He was 39 years old.

It was later determined that the car was empty – the flashing tail lights were likely caused by a malfunction of the car’s electrical system. This fact does not detract from Michael’s intention when he entered the water to aid someone whose life may have been in danger. Michael’s resolution in the face of the great risk was a testament to his courage.

Michael’s death resonated across the country as stories of his passing spread in the media and among close-knit networks of first responders. Inspired, humbled, and deeply affected by this tragedy, hundreds of rescuers who had never met Michael came to pay tribute to his bravery and sacrifice.

Those of us who had the privilege of working with Michael at PFARS recall August 28 as the saddest day in our history.  We also remember a man of great love, generosity, and courage who continues to inspire us every day.

Mark Freda, President
Frank Setnicky, Chief
Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad