‘She’ll have a little piece of my heart forever’: Florida firefighter rescues little girl during Hurricane Ian.

The girl in the photo is one of 26 who were rescued by the St. Augustine Fire Department during Hurricane Ian.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Many St. Augustine first responders are back home with their families after a very busy week. The St. Augustine Fire Chief says they had 26 rescues during Hurricane Ian.

One St. Augustine firefighter, Hardus Oberholzer, was part of many of those dangerous missions.

He says the department has a saying: “The more risk, the more you save.”

He said he was a part of so many rescues, he really didn’t have a specific count – but at least 10 to 15. 

“I knew they were just kind of racking up,” said Oberholzer. “They were almost on a waiting list. We finished one, we dropped them off, turned around, and went off.”

The calls picked up during the Thursday high tide as water pushed up driveways and into homes.

“They were all kind of the same,” said Oberholzer. “People, they got caught, they didn’t think it was going to be as bad, then at the end of the day, they realized they needed to get out.”

One particular rescue hit close to home for the father of two.

A fellow firefighter snapped a powerful picture during the storm, of Oberholzer rescuing a little girl over on the island side of the Bridge of Lions. 

The rescue was during the worst high tide, Thursday afternoon. Oberholzer walked through waist-deep water to get the young girl to safety.

Oberholzer says the family thought they’d be able to hunker down, but after seeing the water get mere inches from inside the home, called for help before the next high tide arrived in the middle of the night.

The girl is the same age as his youngest son. He says seeing her face is an experience that will stick with him for a while.

“She’ll have a little piece of my heart forever. It’s something in their eyes,” he said. “When they truly are at their worst, we show up and have to be at our best every time. Something I’ll remember for the rest of my life and I hope they do too.”

Oberholzer says they had a massive highwater truck to work with, where he felt comfortable driving through up to six feet of water, so never feeling totally in danger, but nerve-racking nonetheless.

He certainly earned a day off with his family – trading in rescues for breaking down all the pillow forts that are scattered around the house.