Training pays off for local young people in July 29 water rescue

Benny Westcott

A broken-down boat on Foster Lake may have recently gotten in the way of recreation for five area young people, but it turned out to be a life-saver for two Salem men.

The evening of July 29 began normally enough. Sweet Home High School Class of 2019 graduate Lace-Anna Shiffert set out for a cruise with her boyfriend, Michael Rowe, and his best friend, Dexter Macauley, both of Marcola; Shiffert’s 15-year-old cousin Frances Turnbull, of Sweet Home, and Cascade Timber Consulting coworker Madison Harris on Rowe’s father’s motorboat.

“We were like, ‘Let’s go out on the lake. It’s a hot day; we’re going to have some fun,'” Shiffert recalled.

But the five weren’t out long before the craft stalled.

So they paddled back to the Gedney Creek boat ramp in the 43700 block of North River Drive, where Macauley held the boat to the dock as Rowe walked up the ramp to retrieve his truck to help haul it out.

That’s when a cry of help sounded near the pier that extends at a 90-degree angle from the ramp.

Harris saw that its source was a young man who’d just jumped into the lake. Before long, that man, later identified as 19-year-old Matthew Dee of Salem, went under. A friend on the shore dove in to save him; however, he began flailing, too. The men had two female friends on the shore, but they didn’t go after them.

The bystanders realized they had to act.

So Harris jumped in to rescue the second man, 22-year-old Kyle Peterson, of Salem. By her estimate, she swam 20 to 25 feet from the ramp, grabbed him and hauled him back to shore. Shiffert and Macauley helped him onto the dock.

“His hair had flipped over his face, so he was pretty much just sucking in all of the water from his hair while he was trying to breathe,” Harris recalled.

At that point Rowe had made it back down the boat ramp, when Shiffert yelled that another person, Dee, was still in the water.

Rowe jumped in, asking Harris where Dee had been when he went under. She swam out with Rowe to show him, but was having trouble peering into the depths.

“I couldn’t open my eyes under the water,” she said. “They started burning. My eyes are super-sensitive, and I wear contacts.”

Rowe also struggled to make anything out.

“I couldn’t even see the bottom because it was so deep,” he said.

He dove down once and came up empty-handed. When he resurfaced, onshore witnesses directed him toward their best guess of Dee’s location. Another dive proved unsuccessful. Then, on the third attempt, Rowe found the young man face-down at the bottom of the lake, at what he estimated to be 20 feet below the surface.

“Michael was down there for the longest time at that point, and I was starting to get a little bit worried, actually,” Harris said.

But Rowe grabbed Dee and pulled him to the surface.

When Harris first saw him, she was gravely concerned for his welfare.

“I caught a glimpse of his face, and his lips were bright blue,” she said. “His face was definitely turning purple. Honestly, my first reaction was, ‘****, this guy’s dead.'”

Rowe swam him back to the dock with Harris and Macauley’s help. According to Rowe, Dee wasn’t breathing and had no pulse.

“He was completely stiff,” Harris noted. “All of his muscles were tight at this point.”

So Rowe opened Dee’s airway, and Harris started CPR. After she’d completed about 15 compressions, he started breathing again. She checked his heartbeat.

“It was still pretty weak,” she said, “but it started getting stronger.”

After about 30 more seconds, his eyes began fluttering, and Rowe and Harris were able to get him to start talking.

“It was kind of just mumbling at first,” Harris said. “We couldn’t understand him, but he was awake. And that was kind of all we were hoping for.”

Turnbull had called 911 earlier, at 6:37 p.m. Having rolled Dee into the recovery position, Harris and Rowe focused on talking to him and keeping him conscious until Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District personnel arrived.

“It was amazing to see that people are still willing to help strangers in need,” said SHFAD Chief Nick Tyler. “Both the people rescued were very lucky. Without help, this could have ended in a double drowning.

“It’s also a good reminder that on hot summer days, cold water always has the potential to be dangerous.”

Dee was transported to a local hospital. He has since been released and is now doing well, according to his mother Dawn Dee, who was contacted by The New Era. Peterson, who, according to Shiffert, had been throwing up water on the dock, was able to leave the area without being hospitalized.

Harris believes both men would have drowned had her group not happened upon them. Dee was a particularly close call.

“He was as close to dead as you can get without being dead,” Rowe said. “Without breathing, the brain can only last so long without oxygen, and it’s up to two to three minutes. And he was under water for at least two minutes before I got him out. So, he was really, really lucky.”

Rowe, 22, is a Mohawk High School graduate who served in the United States Marine Corps for four years after high school. He said his service helped prepare him to save Dee’s life.

“I just did what I practiced doing 100 times before,” Rowe said. “He got lucky, because I was trained for that exact situation a hundred times. I just did what I remembered to do from start to finish. I’ve been taught how to do search patterns for people who drown in open water. I pulled him up and did a rescue that I’ve been taught a bunch of times, then got him out and immediately started care.”

After being pulled ashore and revived, Dee told Rowe he’d jumped from the pier to show off for his friends. But the water was deeper than he’d initially thought.

“The main reason people drown is because of panic,” Rowe explained. “They panic and don’t know what to do. That gets their heart rate going, and they hyperventilate.”

Rowe added that, to his knowledge, both Dee and Peterson were inexperienced swimmers.

Harris, 20, a Virginia native and incoming junior at Shenandoah University living in Sweet Home for a summer internship with Cascade Timber Consulting, was also uniquely prepared for the rescue situation. She took a CPR class five years ago so she could teach swim lessons and babysit.

“My mom’s also a nurse, so I know a decent amount about the human body and the way it works,” she said. “And I know that I can swim, even if I haven’t done it in a while. I honestly just didn’t think about it. I kind of just jumped in the water.”

She noted that the rescue has resulted in fanfare from her social circles.

“Honestly, the attention has been kind of embarrassing,” she said. “Everybody at work knows what happened.” However, she concluded, “It’s nice to have been able to take care of somebody I don’t know.”

She spoke on scene with the father of one of the young men and later met the parents of one of the girls they were with.

“It was kind of shocking to see and hear their gratitude,” Harris recalled. “Because to me, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I would hope that somebody would do it for me. (Talking to the parents) was really what made the situation sink in.”

She added that one of her coworkers thought the situation could be seen as a divine intervention, a perspective she’s adopted herself.

“One of them made the point that with the troubles we were having with the boat, it seemed like God put us there at that point in time for a reason,” Harris said. “That’s been the way that I’ve tried to see it.

“I was just there to make sure that somebody was able to make the most of the chance that they were given here.”