Records: Firefighter ordered to turn around as Marine vet drowned

Retired Master Sgt. Rodney Buentello drowned June 8

BANDERA COUNTY, Texas – A months-long investigation by The Defenders has confirmed a volunteer firefighter called to a water rescue in June was ordered by his chief to turn around and pick up additional equipment.

One of the people in the water during the June 8 incident at Bandera City Park, (Ret.) Master Sgt. Rodney Buentello, drowned and the firefighter in question later resigned.

A teenage girl, who was cited for walking across the park's dam, and a teenage boy, who jumped in to help her, survived without serious injuries.

Buentello, a two-time Purple Heart recipient, has been credited with saving the teens' lives.

"Operationally, it made no sense," former Pipe Creek volunteer firefighter Jeremiah Trombly said, referring to Chief Brandon Lee's decision to have him turn around the rescue truck he was driving and pick up a large trailer containing a rescue boat. 

Pipe Creek was called to the scene 11 minutes after the original 911 call, as part of a mutual-aid request from Bandera Fire and Rescue.

Trombly said he was about seven minutes from the park and already had helmets, throw bags, ropes and life jackets on the truck, when Lee radioed him to also bring the department's trailer.

Emergency dispatch records indicate Bandera already had a rescue boat at the scene when the call for mutual aid was made.

Trombly said Lee's order added at least 10 minutes to his response time.

"I don't typically question orders," Trombly said. "If he wants me to go back and get a piece of equipment, I'm going to go back and get it."

Pictures provided by the Pipe Creek VFD show the boat in question did not have a motor, raising questions about whether it would have actually hindered the rescue attempt at the base of the dam.

Additionally, Trombly said he had not received any swift-water rescue training, despite several "grant-paid" training opportunities offered through the state of Texas. 

"The fire chief had not signed off on any of these, so we remained without any certified swift-water rescue people," Trombly said.

Trombly resigned his position as firefighter and president of the department's board weeks after Buentello's drowning, citing ongoing concerns about the operation of the volunteer department, located about nine miles east of Bandera.

Trombly also pointed out the trailer in question did not have working brakes the day of Buentello's drowning, because a wiring harness connecting a brake control in the truck to the trailer's brakes had not been installed.

Lee declined to answer questions when approached by The Defenders last month.

The department hired an attorney after Trombly's resignation.

The attorney provided The Defenders a lengthy response, claiming the Pipe Creek VFD was not required to send people or resources to the drowning scene.

"These guys are VOLUNTEERS. They do the best they can because they want to 'kinda' be a firefighter and also to help their communities. They don’t have all the training a City Dept (sic) does. Nor do they have any duty whatsoever to make calls," attorney Tom Caldwell said via email.

Caldwell also stated Pipe Creek "played absolutely NO role in the recovery," despite dash-camera video obtained by The Defenders showing Trombly making his way to the area where Buentello's body surfaced.

Trombly confirmed he was among those who removed the body from the water.

Bandera County Fire Marshal John Stith, who was among the rescuers at the scene, said via telephone last month that 99 percent of his time on scene was spent "trying to execute a rescue."

An autopsy report later determined Buentello died as a result of drowning. 

He had a large cut on his upper left leg, according to the report.

The injury was possibly caused by a large log in the water during the incident, according to first responders who spoke with The Defenders.

The dash-camera video shows Buentello and the log moving in a circular motion before the Marine veteran goes under water and does not resurface.

Out of respect for Buentello's family, KSAT 12 has decided not to show that portion of the video.

Trombly said the drowning shows how incidents like this are taxing on volunteer fire departments, and that Pipe Creek was "dangerously unprepared" for this type of call.

Trombly, a former federal whistleblower, was among a group of police officers at Fort Sam Houston who came forward with security concerns after a shooting on post in 2013.

The complaints led to a congressional inquiry, and several members of the department's command staff were reassigned or resigned.