Mom, rescuers recount save in river emergency
ALPENA — A family swim in the Thunder Bay River on Thursday could have turned tragic without the lifesaving help of nearby off-duty firefighters.
When fast-moving water swept a 10-year-old boy toward the base of Four Mile Dam in Alpena Township, the quick actions of firefighters Chris Kinsey and Jacob Ordway brought the frightened boy safely to shore.
On Saturday, the boy’s grateful mother pinned award medals on the rescuers’ shirts before an applauding crowd.
Firefighters, police, and others in the business of helping others train so they’re ready when they’re needed, Kinsey said after the ceremony, squirming at the attention his action had attracted.
“We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do,” he said.
Alpena Township mom Sarah Brege regularly takes her children swimming downriver from the dam, she said on Saturday, recounting Thursday’s harrowing events.
On Thursday afternoon, Brege had just warned her children — all excellent swimmers, she said — to keep their distance from the dam when the eldest, 16-year-old Jazzmyne, called out in distress.
Water rushing from two openings in the dam created an undertow that began to pull Jazzmyne and her brothers toward the dam, Brege said.
In the water but fearful of leaving her firm footing, lest she be pulled in herself and become unable to help her children, Brege desperately tried to think of a way to bring them to safety.
“It was, literally, the scariest moment of my life,” Brege said later.
Calling across the water, she convinced Jazzmyne to grab 6-year-old Liam and swim hard.
The mother stretched her arm and grasped her daughter’s fingertips as the two young people struggled closer, pulling them to the shore.
Meanwhile, 10-year-old Zealand clung to a concrete slab.
As Liam cried on shore, terrified for his brother’s life, Brege frantically tried to figure out how to rescue Zealand. He wasn’t far away, but her swimming skills weren’t enough to get him across the strong currents near the dam’s base, she knew.
A small, inflated water ring gave the boy some support, and she yelled at him to put it around his neck, hoping it would keep his head above water if he lost his grip.
On shore, Jazzmyne called 911.
In the rushing water, Zealand called to his mother that he couldn’t hold on any longer.
And then, help arrived.
Chris Kinsey, paid-on-call firefighter with the Wilson Township Fire Department, was a mile or two away and heard the 911 dispatcher’s alert.
Kinsey rushed to the dam, where Jacob Ordway, paid-on-call firefighter with the Alpena Township Fire Department who lives close to the dam, had also just arrived, only moments after Jazzmyne placed the call.
Officers from the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post, arriving around the same time, provided a life vest and rescue disk — rope wrapped around a disk like a giant yo-yo, Brege explained — to the off-duty firefighters.
A trooper threw the rescue disk to the exhausted boy in the water, encouraging him to tie one end around himself, but Zealand could only manage to grip the cable.
A strong swimmer trained in water rescue, Kinsey took to the water as Ordway hung on to the cable on shore.
Currents quickly swept Kinsey to Zealand. The officer grabbed the boy, paused for a moment, “and then I asked him if he was ready, and he said, ‘Yeah,'” the firefighter recounted.
One arm around Zealand, the other battling the currents, Kinsey pushed through the water, the tired boy helping him kick.
Ordway managed the rope — which had been rigged to extend from him to a bar on the top of the dam and then down to the swimmers — giving it slack as they forged forward and tightening it to keep them from being sucked under.
As Kinsey and Zealand reached the shore, “I was like, ‘OK, I can breathe now,'” Brege recounted, remembering the “unbearable” helplessness of being unable to save her child.
Mark Hansen, Alpena Township Fire Department chief, on Saturday honored the rescuers on behalf of the fire department — presenting a life-saving award to Kinsey and a Medal of Valor to Ordway — before a crowd gathered for the annual Tunnel to Towers walk and run in Alpena.
Brege pinned an award bar on each of the men’s shirts on the Bay View Park bandshell stage after the run, which each year commemorates the heroism of firefighters and other responders who lost their lives in the Twin Towers on 9/11.
The police officers and others on scene, including MSP officers and responders from the Alpena Township Fire Department, Maple Ridge Fire Department, and the Alpena County Sheriff’s Office, each played a pivotal role in the rescue, the firefighters were quick to say after the ceremony.
The exhausted 10-year-old, too, made the rescue possible, mustering the courage to trust the arms around him and let go of the concrete slab.
“Without any one of us, it would have been a whole different story,” Kinsey said.
As for rushing to the scene of an emergency, that’s just what firefighters do, they said.
“We’re kind of always on duty,” Kinsey said.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.