Two Department of Correction inmates dove into Salmon Creek to rescue three young boaters who fell into the water Wednesday afternoon.
Three brothers, ages 8, 10 and 16 years old, were floating down Salmon Creek in a kayak when the craft overturned near Salmon Creek Regional Park around 12:15 p.m., Fire District 6 Fire Chief Jerry Green said.
A work crew of 10 inmates from Larch Corrections Center east of Yacolt was doing park maintenance when they heard screams for help. The 10-year-old was clinging onto the kayak as it floated downriver while his 8-year-old brother held onto him.
Inmate Nelson Pettis, 37, was working along the river when he spotted the boys heading downstream. He threw off his coat and jumped into the water to get them.
“I don’t think I was thinking at all,” Pettis said. “I was just really concentrating on getting them to safety.”
The current was strong and the water deep, so Pettis floated downriver until he was able to stand on his feet. He grabbed the boys as they floated by and helped them to a strainer.
A strainer is a pile of floating debris that builds up when water levels are high. With enough hydraulic pressure, a swimmer can get sucked under the water, said Fire District 6 paramedic Joseph Killian.
Inmate Larry Bohn, 29, got in water when he saw the 16-year-old heading downriver by himself. Together, they made it to the shore.
Bohn went back into the water and helped Pettis hoist the two boys onto the debris pile. Both inmates took off their shirts, wrung them out and wrapped them around the kids to keep them as warm as possible. The 8-year-old’s lips were blue.
“He looked real bad,” Bohn said. “They were saying thank you repeatedly. They just seemed really scared.”
Meanwhile, inmate Jon Fowler, 28, ran down to the river, through the brush and logs, and waited about 15 minutes for the rescue team to arrive. He helped the Region 5 Technical Rescue Team, which includes Fire District 6 and Vancouver Fire Department, inflate their rescue boat. Two rescuers paddled out to the group with personal flotation devices. They brought back the two boys and then returned for the inmates. Fowler carried the 10-year-old out to the ambulance.
The current was moving at an estimated 25 to 30 mph, faster than usual for this time of year due to rain raising the water levels, Killian said.
“I’m surprised how high this is,” Green said Wednesday. “It’s moving at a pretty good pace.”
At one point, five inmates may have been in the water, trying to help out.
The water’s temperature was a chilling 45 degrees, Green said, making hypothermia the main concern. Once the brothers returned to shore, medical responders worked to get them warm. They were transported to Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center and evaluated for hypothermia. The boys names were not released.
Bohn and Pettis were treated at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and later released.
Everyone involved was cold but OK, Clark County Sheriff’s Sgt. Fred Neiman said.
One of the inmates who went into the creek dumped water out of his galoshes before getting into the corrections center van that would take them back to Yacolt.
“I don’t think we’re heroes by any means,” Fowler said. “I think we just did what any good person would do.”