After getting his leg trapped underneath a rock in a waterfall and becoming stuck in 60-degree water for more than an hour, Johnny Napierkowski said he’s learned to be more cautious while swimming.
“I thought it was safe, and it wasn’t,” he said. “It was a hard lesson learned, but it’s learned.”
Escaping the heat with four friends and his little brother, Napierkowski went swimming at Dougan Falls along the Washougal River on Monday evening. They reached the popular swimming spot about 7 p.m., when temperatures hovered in the mid 80s.
The 19-year-old from Washougal saw one of his friends slide down the rocks of the area’s lower waterfall. It looked fun, so Napierkowski went after him.
“Right when I went down it, I turned, and my right leg got stuck between a rock and the pressure of the water,” he said.
Napierkowski was dealing with hundreds, possibly thousands of pounds of water pressure trying to basically fold him in half, said Firefighter Bill Dunlap. He coordinates Fire District 6 firefighters who are part of the county’s technical rescue team, and helped with Monday’s rescue.
Standing 6 feet, 7 inches tall, Napierkowski was able to keep his head above water. He used his left leg to prop himself up and grabbed onto nearby rocks to fight the river’s strong current.
“It felt like I kept getting tackled over and over and over again,” he said. “There was no way for me to be able to move. It was one big ,continuous force pushing me away.”
Someone called 911 about 8:10 p.m. While waiting for the rescuers to arrive, his friend tied two belts together and used it to help keep him above water. Other bystanders got ropes and threw them to him as well.
“They’re all my heroes,” he said. “The whole time, I was thinking, wow, my brother might not have an older brother pretty soon.”
Dunlap said that if it wasn’t for the people helping keep him above water, Napierkowski could have easily drowned.
When emergency crews arrived, they gave Napierkowski a life jacket and floated a raft behind him to help him rest. They wrapped rope around him and worked to pull him free.
“They were trying to tell me to move my leg,” he said. “I said, ‘I can’t move my leg. I can’t feel my leg.’ “
He told rescuers he couldn’t move backward or to the left or right. The only way to get unstuck was to go back through the waterfall, against the current.
But, he said, the hourlong effort to stay afloat had worn him out.
“I felt like my leg was going to snap or something,” he said. But, “I knew I wasn’t getting out any other way.”
With the help of first responders who used an advanced rope system as a harness, Napierkowski was able to use the rest of his energy to push himself up and through the falls.
“Water was crashing down on my face. I couldn’t see a thing,” he said. “Something knocked the wind out of me. I just ran out of breath really fast.”
Finally, Napierkowski said, “I managed to turn myself around and water crashing into the back of my head formed a little air bubble and I got a breath or two from that.”
With that, he was finally pulled loose. Rescuers put Napierkowski into a stokes basket and took him downstream to a waiting ambulance, which took him to Peacehealth Southwest Medical Center. He remains hospitalized, recovering from hypothermia, muscle damage and extreme fatigue.
“When they finally pulled me out of the water, I couldn’t help but cry,” Napierkowski said. “I was just so happy and relieved.”
When his mother, Carrie Fischer, got the news that her son had an accident in the river, she screamed into the phone before she could get many details.
“I didn’t want to hear it,” she said. “I thought my worst fear was happening.”
She said that her younger son, 15-year-old Dakota Napierkowski, gave her a fright a few years ago while swimming in the Sandy River. He went underwater and was sucked by an undertow downstream out of her sight.
“It was the longest four or five minutes of my life,” she said.
Since then, she has repeatedly warned her children about water safety. And with a high number of recent drownings in Clark County, Fischer has been preaching the same message.
“I have been warning these boys for weeks, begging them to wear life jackets,” she said. “We have gone over this exact scenario.”
Authorities said the water temperature was believed to be in the range of 58 to 60 degrees.
“This stretch of warm weather has kept first responders busy throughout the area,” Skamania County Sheriff Dave Brown said in a press release. “We encourage people visiting the Dougan Falls area and other popular swimming areas to be safe, use a life jacket when necessary and know the hazards so that you can avoid trouble if possible.”
Dunlap said that if people choose to hang out in swift water, they should wear a personal floatation device.
“It would help. I’m not saying it would fix that situation,” he said.
Four years ago, the technical rescue team performed the same mission when a 14-year-old from Wilsonville, Ore., got trapped in the same spot at Dougan Falls. After Kea Rodrigues was pulled from the water, medics performed lifesaving procedures, including CPR, on the unconscious boy, who had turned blue. He fully recovered after three months in the hospital, Dunlap said.
“That moving water, it has incredible forces,” he said.
If Napierkowski wasn’t so tall or if water levels had been higher, Dunlap believes his team would have recovered his body. Three months ago, it could have taken a few days to recover a body from that area.
With at least two months of summer left, Napierkowski said he’d take more precaution when visiting area waterways.
“I’ll be a lot more cautious,” he said. “I’ll probably be that annoying nagging friend, but I don’t care.”