Virginia Firefighter In Line for Benefits After Tornado
New state law aids responders who suffer damage

Posted: 05-05-2008
Updated: 05-05-2008 04:56:15 PM

Firehouse.Com News

PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- Instinct and training kicked for a Virginia firefighter last week when tornadoes ripped through the area here.

The Portsmouth firefighter/paramedic did primary searches of nearby residences, grabbed a spanner wrench and turned off gas lines in about 30 houses, triaged and treated patients, helped carry a woman with a fractured leg and rescued beloved pets.

Then, Bridget Rigby went to the hospital believing she was in pre-term labor.

"We're both fine. I guess I may have overdone it," she said Monday.

"It sounded like a train. Then, there was a high pitch noise. It was dark outside and debris blowing around everywhere. I made it to the hallway before the first window exploded. There was an awful pressure in my head. It felt like it went on for many minutes, but it was probably over in seconds."

When the noise stopped, Rigby emerged and stepped out into what used to be her Hillpoint Farms neighborhood. Some of the houses were reduced to piles of rubble; others were still standing but had sustained extensive damage.

"I did primary searches at houses to make sure everyone was OK. Some had minor lacerations, bruises, but nothing life-threatening. One woman had a fractured leg. There was no way an ambulance could get in there. There were houses and everything in the street."

Cell phones were virtually useless, possibly due to the overload of calls. Unable to reach the Suffolk County 9-1-1 Center, Rigby finally managed to get through to her station -- Engine 10 -- to alert them about the situation.

She and a man carried the injured woman nearly two blocks where they met a person with a car.

Clad in sweatpants, t-shirt and tennis shoes with spanner wrench in hand, the six-month pregnant former Baltimore paramedic went door-to-door shutting off gas lines. "I explained it was important that the gas get turned off."

But, her actions didn't stop there. She also crawled into a void to rescue a 100-pound Labrador Retriever. A captain at her station agreed to take care of the dog until the owner could make it back to the damaged area.

"I was headed to the hospital to be checked out. But, I wanted to make sure the dogs were take care of," she said with a laugh.

The firefighter even managed to grab a handful of leashes after seeing a number of dogs roaming around.

Rigby, a firefighter in Portsmouth for the past year and a half, said her instincts kicked in when she walked out the door last week. "I knew it would be a while before anyone could get here. We had to do what we could. Everyone here was helping . . ."

Her husband, who was on flight training with the U.S. Navy, met her at the hospital after being notified that she may be in labor.

"Turns out, I wasn't."

"She did a great job. She's an excellent firefighter," said Christopher Riley, president of Portsmouth Firefighters Association.

As it turns out, Rigby may be the first public safety worker eligible for benefits provided by new state legislation.

Michael Kernbach, an attorney who represents the Virginia Professional Firefighters Association, said he came up with the idea after seeing how personnel were treated following Hurricane Katrina.

First responders who suffer hardships are eligible for $2,500 a month for three months to help them recover.

"I've been appalled at the way the federal government treats its firefighters and responders," Kernbach said. "I believe the Commonwealth of Virginia is the first in the country to have this legislation. It shows we care . . ."

Riley said he hopes Rigby gets the financial support. "If anyone deserves it, she definitely does."