NASBLA and the Wisconsin Department of Natural resources recognizes Conservation Warden Kyle Johnson, Rock County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Krahn, Wisconsin State Trooper Brandon Ferrell and Conservation Warden Alex Brooks for their life saving actions with the NASBLA Award of Commendation. The Award of Commendation is given in cases where the individuals were considered instrumental in directly contributing to the saving of a human life or lives.
On Saturday, May 25th, 2019, four canoes with two individuals each, entered the Yahara River. One of the canoes entered a high current area and was swept under causing the canoe to tip and the boat occupants fell out of the canoe. Due to the high waters and strong current, a young girl was taken under water and was trapped under the canoe.
Wardens Kyle Johnson and Alex Brooks were on patrol when they heard Rock County dispatch out a water rescue call reporting several people in the water on the Yahara River. The wardens immediately notified dispatch that they were available to respond and proceeded to pick up a flat bottom boat. They arrived at the rescue scene, launched the boat, and proceeded downstream to where the victims were believed to be. They noted the river was running high and cold, and with exceptionally strong current as they rounded the bend.
Deputy Christopher Krahn, Rock County Sheriff’s Office, Brandon Ferrell, Wisconsin State Trooper, and several local firefighters had arrived just prior and had entered the water on foot. They were focusing their efforts on a young woman who had become lodged in a “strainer” (downed tree) under the fast-moving current. Amongst fallen trees and floating debris, Wardens Johnson and Brooks found themselves face to face with numerous people in the water, clinging to or perched on branches.
Empty canoes were pressed up against the shoreline and trees, some of them completely submerged. Between the strong currents and almost vertical shoreline, even the victims who were able to climb above the waterline were trapped. The wardens quickly realized that most of the group were juveniles.
As Warden Johnson and Warden Brooks proceeded downstream and around another bend, they discovered another juvenile victim. Johnson quickly maneuvered the boat up to that young boy and Brooks plucked him from the rushing water, where he had been clinging to a small branch.
Johnson and Brooks then proceeded back up stream and located two more juvenile victims hanging on to another tree branch. An excerpt from the wardens’ report reads: “At that time, I feared that the children would get swept downstream and get stuck in the tree or their PFDs would come undone and they would get pulled under by the strong current.” While Johnson pressed the boat up against a fallen tree out in the river, Brooks worked to quickly get the two juveniles into the boat.
The wardens quickly rushed the three juveniles back to shore, where they were delivered to waiting first responders. The wardens picked up two local firefighters and proceeded back into the river. Their next mission was to rescue a group of two juveniles and one adult who were clinging to another tree. The wardens’ report stated that Johnson maneuvered his boat up to that group, against the relentless water, and amongst the fallen trees and floating debris. Brooks and the firefighters helped all three victims onto the boat. They then delivered those three victims to first responders on shore. Those words describe a textbook rescue, expert boat operation, and amazing teamwork, but what they don’t capture is what the Lieutenant learned later during a debriefing and peer-support meeting with all those that responded that day.
What the wardens didn’t say was much more powerful and traumatic. During the rescues noted above, Deputy Krahn, Trooper Ferrell, and firefighters continued to work on rescuing the young girl who had been trapped underwater for some time. Water had pressed her up against debris, and the force of the water made rescue almost impossible. They removed the girl from the water and began life saving measures. That little girl’s father was the adult that Johnson, Brooks and the firefighters rescued. Her twin brother was also a part of the canoeing group.
Warden Johnson was requested to help pick up the young girl. The first responders carefully and quickly carried her onto Johnson’s boat. A deputy continued CPR the entire time. Johnson brought them to shore and she was whisked away to an awaiting medical helicopter that had landed nearby. Their work was not over.
Another group of paddlers had been seen (safely on shore) on the opposite side of the river. Johnson and Brooks learned they were a separate group, who had stopped to try and help. They had become stranded as well. Johnson and Brooks picked up two of them, and the other two were rescued by a Janesville Fire Department boat team. They were transported safely back to the other side of the river.
Johnson and Brooks, still unsure if all the victims were accounted for, then proceeded back out onto the treacherous waters. They ran the river downstream to ensure there were no other victims. They revisited the boats, the debris and fallen trees, but did not locate anyone else. The river was empty. Everyone was back on shore. The atmosphere was somber. People silently prayed for the little girl.
This wasn’t a “feel good” rescue, it wasn’t an easy rescue. This was a dangerous, involved, and heartbreaking rescue. The community continues to mourn the loss of the young girl. These officers still think about her and every other victim there. This is something they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.
(Narrative provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)