Man recounts Foster Lake water rescue

Benny Westcott

What began as a run-of-the-mill day on Foster Lake for avid fisherman Tony Ramirez turned quickly into a near-drowning incident, with the Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District coming to the 28-year-old’s rescue.

On Saturday, Oct. 29, Ramirez, a Lebanon resident and 2012 Sweet Home High School graduate, pushed his kayak off Calkins Park boat ramp around noon. By 2 p.m., he’d caught two rainbow trout and had another fish on the line. The weather had turned a little gusty, he recalled, with waves forming in the lake. His kayak faced north as the winds went from east to west.

Then, as he leaned right to remove his catch from the hook, his kayak tipped over.

“I guess I was just leaning too far,” he said.

As a result, he tumbled into the water wearing only his shirt and shorts. His lifejacket, unfortunately, was tied up in the boat behind him. After hitting the water, he removed his phone from his pocket, activated it against the kayak and called his wife, Tabby.

“I don’t really know why I called my wife instead of 911 right away, but it kind of ended up just happening,” he said. “I talked to her for 20 minutes as I was trying to swim to one of the sides. I was kind of in the middle of the lake, and I was trying to swim to one of the banks, but I just wasn’t getting anywhere.”

When he hung up, he returned his phone to his pocket and tried to flip the kayak right-side up. He succeeded but went underwater himself in the process. After emerging, he attempted to climb back aboard, but the boat flipped again, sending him back under.

“At that point,” he said, “I had swallowed quite a bit of water.”

Ramirez was hanging onto the craft when he heard a man he estimated to be in his 50s shouting from the bank. Should he call 911?

“I said, ‘Yeah,’ because there wasn’t much I could do,” he said. “I tried getting the lifejacket out, but it was stuck.”

That unknown bystander made the call, and the Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District responded with a boat. Ramirez thinks he was in the water for about an hour before personnel reached him. He experienced mild hypothermia from the ordeal.

“I swam as much as I could, but the water was pretty cold,” he said. “It got to the point where my breathing started to slow down, and I just kind of had to wait there until the boat came and got me.”

Before SHFAD rescuers arrived, Ramirez admitted, his hopes had turned bleak.

“I definitely said my prayers, and I thought that was it,” he recalled. “I had swallowed a lot of water at one point, and I thought I was going to drown.”

By the time his rescuers came, he said, “I was starting to not talk anymore. I was just trying to focus on my breathing, to make sure I was still breathing. At that point my chin was in the water, so I was shoulder-deep. I couldn’t see above me or anything like that, but all of a sudden, I heard a boat right up against me. I heard the bank people say a boat was coming, so that’s why I just relaxed and tried to focus on breathing.”

After he was lifted from the water, he said, “It was a little tough to breathe. I couldn’t really move my legs, and I couldn’t move my toes. Everything was super cold to the touch, and it took about half an hour to get me warmed back up to be able to walk.”

He was whisked to an ambulance on shore, where he remained until he sufficiently warmed up, then went to the home of a local friend. Rescuers brought his kayak in with everything still aboard, besides his fishing pole. He even got to keep the two rainbow trout he had on the stringer.

“They were nice enough to give them back to me,” he said.

With the incident now behind him, Ramirez remains grateful for that man on the shore.

“I couldn’t reach my phone again, so I didn’t have a way of contacting anybody,” he said. “And I was out in the middle of the lake, and I couldn’t get back on the kayak. So if he hadn’t seen me, I don’t know.”

He said he’s recovered physically from the hypothermia but still thinks about the harrowing weekend event that taught him some valuable lessons the hard way.

“I always take the lifejacket,” he said, “but I always just strap it in and don’t think anything of it. But that water was 40 degrees, and it was cold. So, I definitely learned my lesson to always wear a lifejacket and to not go alone. I’ll never go out on a kayak without my lifejacket on again.”

“Sweet Home Fire crews were grateful that we were able to reach the victim and assist him to safety while he was still able to keep himself above water,” read a Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District statement regarding the incident. “We are happy to hear that he is doing well.

“In an effort to prevent anyone else from enduring what this gentleman did, Sweet Home Fire would like to take this opportunity to remind the community that the water is extremely cold this time of year, which can cause even the strongest of swimmers to become endangered very quickly. We recommend wearing a lifejacket any time you are on or near the water for recreation, and want to remind you that if you don’t have a lifejacket, you can stop by the main fire station and borrow one.”

“Another safety concern,” the statement continued, “is that the low water levels in Foster Lake have made Sunnyside Boat Ramp the only ramp from which we are able to launch our rescue boat, which could lead to delays in accessing victims. We urge you to use caution around waterways, and not to be alone on or near the water.”