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Washougal officer gets high honor for heroic rescue

Francis Reagan awarded Medal of Honor for saving woman from drowning in 2019

By , Columbian staff writer
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Washougal police Officers Trevor Claudson, from left, Francis Reagan and Ryan Castro stand Monday on the bank of the Washougal River where they rescued a woman from drowning in 2019. Reagan, who swam through the cold water to hold the woman's head above water for about 45 minutes, was awarded the Washington State Law Enforcement Medal of Honor for the rescue. (Molly J.
Washougal police Officers Trevor Claudson, from left, Francis Reagan and Ryan Castro stand Monday on the bank of the Washougal River where they rescued a woman from drowning in 2019. Reagan, who swam through the cold water to hold the woman's head above water for about 45 minutes, was awarded the Washington State Law Enforcement Medal of Honor for the rescue. (Molly J. SMITH for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Washougal Police Officer Francis Reagan looked down on the rapids turning in the Washougal River where he helped save a woman from drowning May 4, 2019, after she had fallen out of an inner tube into the frigid water.

“It’s surreal. I realize it could have ended much worse,” he said Monday, standing on the hillside above the river.

He pointed to the rocks that had trapped the woman’s leg and banks where his fellow officers tied off rescue ropes. Reagan helped hold her head out of the water for about 45 minutes until she could get free.

The woman, then-28-year-old Emily McCauley of Portland, survived the ordeal, but her companion, 30-year-old Stephen Barnaby of Portland, did not. He was not found during the rescue. Reagan and several other first responders were treated in an ambulance for hypothermia.

The risky rescue earned Reagan the Washington State Law Enforcement Medal of Honor last month at a ceremony in Olympia.

When Washougal police were called to assist the Clark County Sheriff’s Office with reports of someone screaming for help from the Washougal River, officers Reagan, Trevor Claudson and Ryan Castro responded.

They drove 7 miles northeast to an area of the river that Reagan called desolate. He was expecting a fairly simple rescue, where they could toss the woman a rope to hold onto until she could float to shore. However, he quickly noticed McCauley could barely hold her head out of the water and appeared stuck.

He went into the water with her, he said, because “time was of the essence. I didn’t want to waste time.”

Prior to becoming a police officer, Reagan had trained as a Navy SEAL, which included a swift water rescue course he took in 2012 or 2013.

To the other two officers there that day, Reagan’s training and bravery made all the difference.

“It’s a miracle Officer Reagan was working that day,” Claudson said. “I believe she would not have survived if he was not working that day.”

Reagan was quick to deflect the glory, saying it was a team effort and that his fellow officers, firefighters and paramedics saved McCauley’s life just as much as he did.

However, it was Reagan who was handed the medal of honor by Gov. Jay Inslee at the state Capitol building Oct. 8. He’d also been named the 2019 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year for the rescue.

Reagan called the ceremony sobering because the accolade is most often awarded to the families of officers killed while on duty.

He joked about passing the medal around to the others, but Claudson said he’d give it right back to him.

While at the rescue site Monday, Reagan recalled responding about three months later farther down river, east of the Southeast Vernon Road bridge, to retrieve Barnaby’s body.

With the roaring of the rapids, the officer said he was surprised anyone had heard McCauley screaming. He struggled to communicate with his fellow officers and firefighters on the shore once he was in the water with her.

He’d tried to get a life jacket on McCauley, but the current carried it downstream. She was drifting in and out of consciousness, he said.

Once the woman’s leg was finally free and she floated to a rescue station firefighters had set up on the shore just down river, Reagan still didn’t breathe too big a sigh of relief. He didn’t expect her to survive the hypothermia or likely infection from the water.

“But she survived, and that made the rescue worth it,” he said. “It was a huge risk but a huge reward.”

Regardless of the outcome that day, Reagan said he still would’ve been proud of the officers’ rescue efforts.

“We always have to try. I’d want someone to try if it was my loved one,” he said.

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