Firefighters give Vikings a helping hand
By Scott Bellile
New London firefighters didn’t expect to spend the night before Christmas Eve freeing NFL football players from a stalled airplane.
However, that was the case in Greenville Friday, Dec. 23, when the Minnesota Vikings flew into town.
Delta flight 8867, packed with Vikings players and team staff, landed safely at Appleton International Airport in Greenville. But minutes later, around 5:15 p.m., the Airbus A330 aircraft’s left rear wheels slid off the icy taxiway, short of the arrival gate.
“What we were told, it was snowing and blowing so hard the pilot couldn’t see the runway and just turned the corner too short,” New London Fire Capt. Don Conat said. “And the wheels on the left side of the plane went off the pavement onto the lawn, and that’s how the plane got stuck.”
None of the approximately 120 passengers reported injuries. The next step was to determine how to get everyone off the plane safely. The exit doors were two stories high with no platform nearby to walk onto.
“There were numerous options looked at including the use of the emergency chute,” said Patrick Tracey, marketing manager for Appleton International Airport. “None of those was a good option, and at that time we made the decision to call the area first responders with the aerial platform trucks.”
Located 17 miles away from Greenville, New London Fire Department was called because it is one of few area departments that owns the proper platform ladder truck, Conat said.
Arriving to the scene with New London was Fox Crossing Fire Department, formerly the Town of Menasha Fire Department. Fox Crossing helped passengers out the plane’s front exit door and New London handled the back door.
Tagging along with Conat from New London were firefighter Zac Dunbar, Lt. Jake Dishno, engineer Troy Herter and newcomer firefighter Joe Kicherer.
“It almost seemed like we were the famous people when we got there,” Dunbar said. “Honestly when we got into the plane, all these guys were taking pictures of us.”
Firefighters deplaned players two at a time using the ladder bucket. Some appeared tired while others were enthusiastic, said Dunbar, who helped them into the buckets and guarded the plane’s open doorway so nobody took a 20-foot plummet.
Despite how tense the Vikings/Packers rivalry may be, firefighters put their biases aside and ensured no athletes got hurt before the Christmas Eve game in Green Bay.
Dunbar noted the team was very protective of its players. Firefighters had to carry their carry-on bags, and the players were required to hop off the ladder onto carpeted mats so they didn’t slip.
Dunbar and Dishno said they passed the time by joking with the players, making their Packers pride well known. Dishno said a Viking told him, “I know you guys need this win really bad, but this is kind of ridiculous.”
Dishno said he responded, “Yeah, I’d wish you luck tomorrow, but I’m a Packers fan.”
Making light of what could otherwise be a frustrating ordeal, the Vikings use social media to engage with fans. Players Chad Greenway, Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson were among those who posted videos online of their exits from the plane. The Vikings’ communications team also documented the night with photos and video for the team website.
“If you saw some of the Vikings players’ tweets and comments, they seemed to think it was pretty cool,” Tracey said. “It was a hassle being stuck on an airplane, but as far as the rescue, they thought it was pretty neat, and they enjoyed their interaction with the first responders.”
Of the 56 passengers New London rescued, Dishno estimated all but two had cell phones out taking selfies and videos.
“They were all very respectful and grateful. They all said thank you. They were all very nice guys, but I still don’t like the Vikings,” Dishno joked with a laugh.
Passengers spent five to six hours on the plane for a flight that took less than an hour. The Vikings posted on their Facebook page at 11:45 p.m. that the players were “nestled, all snug in their beds” at last.
Things didn’t go the Vikings’ way Saturday, Dec. 24, as they lost to the Packers 38-25.
“A couple people gave me a hard time [for helping the Vikings], but not too bad,” Dishno said. “I think it helped that they lost. If they won, I think I’d be in trouble.”
Friendly rivalries aside, Conat said it was an honor for the department to help a professional football team in need.
“It’s probably going to be the call of a lifetime for us,” Conat said. “I wouldn’t expect to ever have to do it again.”