“I was fairly terrified once I heard there were four people who had jumped off the vessel, because at that point we don’t know if we’re going to be doing rescues or recoveries,” Sgt. Stephen Dangler said.
Dangler was on duty Tuesday afternoon when the sheriff’s office’s marine unit got the call.
“We knew the condition was getting more and more serious,” Dangler said.
He said it took his crew 30 minutes to get to the family, since they were several miles away on the Columbia River.
By the time they got close, patrol deputies on foot could hear the family yelling for help but couldn’t pinpoint their exact location due to a sheer cliff covered in brush.
Meanwhile, the family clung to a muddy knoll and couldn’t get out of the water.
“This is a cliff ledge that went right up to the water level. So right where they were lying was about a foot of water,” Dangler said. “He was laying sideways in it; they were trying to keep the children up.”
So deputies steered the boat along the cliff. Dangler says it was easy to get the 8-year-old and 9-year-old, as well as the grandmother and a puppy, aboard the rescue boat. However, the grandfather and an elderly dog were struggling with hypothermia and couldn’t move.
Dangler couldn’t get them out by himself, so the rescue boat returned to shore to get more help and Dangler jumped in the water.
“I was kind of kneeling over the two of them. I was holding the one gentleman in my left arm and the dog in my right arm. And we were just trying to keep morale up, keep spirits up,” he said.
For several minutes, they waited in freezing water.
“I was able to verbally communicate with him for the first five to eight minutes, but then it began to slowly set in where he was not able to communicate as well,” Dangler said.
When the rescue boat returned, Dangler and another deputy pulled the grandfather and the remaining dog aboard.
After staying overnight in the hospital, the family is home and doing well.
Deputies say the two children and the grandmother were wearing life jackets and the grandfather was found clinging to a flotation device.
“Having life jackets available and accessible saved their lives,” Dangler said.
Deputies said at this point, they don’t know why the boat caught fire.