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Boone County firefighter dies during flood rescue operation

Flags were flown at half-staff outside the Boone County Fire Protection District in honor of Boone County Fire Protection Assistant Chief Matthew Tobben on Monday in Columbia. Tobben had 19 years of experience at the Union Fire Protection District west of St. Louis.
Sarah Voyles
/
Missourian
Flags were flown at half-staff outside the Boone County Fire Protection District in honor of Boone County Fire Protection Assistant Chief Matthew Tobben on Monday in Columbia. Tobben had 19 years of experience at the Union Fire Protection District west of St. Louis.

A Boone County firefighter died during a swift water rescue operation early Monday in north Columbia.

Boone County Fire Protection District Assistant Chief Matthew Tobben was rescuing two individuals from floodwaters near Range Line Street and Bear Creek when his boat capsized, said Scott Olsen, chief of the department.

"The firefighters had rescued two individuals when the zodiac boat overturned and Chief Tobben was thrown from the boat and drowned," Olsen said in a Facebook post.

Tobben was assisting the Columbia Fire Department in a rescue operation and was in the boat with a Columbia firefighter. The city firefighter and the two individuals were able to be rescued and are safe.

The incident took place about 4:30 a.m. on Monday. Another 2.4 inches of rain fell in Columbia between midnight and 8 a.m., according to the National Weather Service.

The area's creeks and green spaces are saturated with water, after several waves of heavy, pre-dawn thunderstorms rocked the area during the past week.

"My thoughts and prayers are with (Tobben's) family, friends and fellow firefighters during this time," Columbia Mayor Barbara Buffaloe said in a statement posted on X. "As we experience these flash floods, I urge people to practice the utmost of caution. For your safety and the safety of our brave first responders."

Tobben had been a firefighter for 19 years, but had only worked as an assistant chief in Boone County for two months. He had 19 years of experience at the Union Fire Protection District west of St. Louis and had a long history of work in rescues and crisis management, according to his LinkedIn account.

Tobben had been part of a team that rescued two people after a car was swept off Gillespie Bridge Road by floodwaters Wednesday in south Columbia. An 81-year-old woman who had been driving the car died in that incident. Tobben and others helped rescue a passenger from that vehicle and a bystander, who had become stranded in the water while trying to help.

Tobben is the second Boone County Fire Protection District firefighter to be killed in the line of duty, Assistant Chief Gale Blomenkamp said. In 2021, another assistant chief, Bryant Gladney, was killed while responding to an incident on Interstate 70. His vehicle was struck by a tractor-trailer, authorities said.

In 2014, Columbia Fire Department Lt. Bruce Britt was killed while rescuing residents of the University Village apartments along Providence and Stewart roads. Britt was fatally injured when a second-floor walkway at the structure collapsed.

At that time, Columbia Fire Department officials said Britt's death was the first their department had experienced in the line of duty since 1986.

In all, Columbia firefighters said five people and a dog were rescued from floodwaters during multiple incidents in the city early Monday, including the two civilians that Tobben helped save before he was thrown from the boat.

"The Columbia Fire Department will forever be grateful for Assistant Chief Tobben's bravery and dedication to the community," the department said in a statement posted Monday afternoon.

In addition to the water rescue call at Range Line Street and Bear Creek, firefighters also were called to a water rescue at nearby Northland Drive.

The incident will be investigated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol and its Water Patrol division.

"Tobben will be sorely missed," Blomenkamp said during a news conference Monday afternoon. "He was always willing to help. He never turned down an opportunity to run that call, to make that rescue, to be involved. He just never hesitated."

Finnegan Belleau is a student reporter at KBIA reporting on issues related to elections and local policy in Mid-Missouri.
The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.