Basalt woman still recovering, days after saving Ruedi swimmer
July 26, 2005
A Basalt bookkeeper single-handedly rescued an unidentified man at Ruedi Reservoir last week, plucking him from a probable watery death some 75 yards from the shoreline.This was shortly after she helped coax three children – one of them the son of the man she saved – back to shore after they got in trouble out in the water, when a log they were hanging onto slipped away from them.”I am one hurtin’ puppy,” remarked Susan Wheeler, 48, “everything’s sore.” She explained that she had pulled a muscle in her neck from the exertions, and that other parts of her body were stiff and sore.”I did what had to be done,” she said simply about her actions. “There wasn’t anyone else around. I was it.”Wheeler said she was at the public picnic area at the reservoir, at about 4 p.m. on July 22, making preparations for “a big birthday party” for her 7-year old son, when she watched a family pull two vehicles up to the boat ramp area and head for the shoreline to cool off.
“They weren’t from here,” Wheeler recalled, adding that “I heard one of them say they had been on a long drive.”It was after the three children had gone into the water, leaving their parents and an accompanying adult woman on the shore, that the trouble started.Wheeler recalled that the male adult on shore called out to the three youngsters, who were hanging onto a floating log, to “all wave at the same time” for a photograph. But when they did, Wheeler said, the log slipped away from them and was carried out toward the middle of the lake by the currents, causing the kids to panic.On shore the adults, including Wheeler, began shouting directions to the kids to get them swimming back toward shore. Wheeler recalled that “there was a lot of splashing going on,” and that the kids appeared to be “flailing” and not able to swim well.But as the kids neared the shore, the male adult, who Wheeler said was father to the youngest boy (his fiancee apparently was mother to the other two kids in the water) jumped into the water himself and started “dog paddling” away from shore, apparently to help his son.Wheeler, who learned to swim as a child growing up on Old Hickory Lake in Tennessee, said she could tell from his motions that the father was not a good swimmer. Even after the kids all made it to shore, the father continued to head out into deeper water and quickly began making noises like a swimmer in distress. Wheeler realized he was in trouble.
She said the man’s fiancee ran into the water, but only got in about up to her knees when she stopped, turned and stared at Wheeler.”All she did was look at me, and I just dove,” Wheeler recalled, adding that she called out to her younger son to go to their car and get her family’s two child-sized lifejackets out, in case they were needed.Wheeler, who does not consider herself to be in great physical shape, swam free-style with her head above water to keep a bead on her target, and watched as he went down one, two, then three times.When she got to a buoy near where she’d last seen the man, she spotted his grey hair just below the surface and pulled him up, positioning him so she could haul him back to shore.Then, she said, “I swam like I’d never swam in my life.” She could feel herself tiring, and was only able to swim with her one free hand and kick a little bit, but she managed to get closer to shore before an unidentified paramedic ran into the water and helped her the last 10 feet or so.Another paramedic showed up, she said, and “I just backed away, tried to take care of the kids … and let them do their thing.” She realized as she did that the exertion had taken a toll, leaving her exhausted and in pain: “My toes hurt, my butt hurt, everything hurt.” The crowd on shore, she recalled, had concluded the father had drowned.
“Everybody was screaming, ‘He’s dead, he’s dead,'” Wheeler said, adding that the victim’s throat was filled with water and he wasn’t breathing.But the two paramedics, whom she knew but declined to identify for this story, revived the man, and he was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital for treatment. She said she was told later that he was listed in “stable” condition. She never learned the names of the man, his fiancee, the couple’s “20-something” female companion, or the children, and ambulance personnel who showed up to take the patient to the hospital would release no information about his identity, citing federal privacy regulations. Wheeler also never was interviewed by the emergency personnel who showed up, and noticed that one of the paramedics was formally described as the “first responder” to the crisis.But she did get a heartfelt expression of gratitude from the son of the victim. As the family car pulled away in the wake of the ambulance, “He (the son) looked at me with those big brown eyes and said, ‘Thank you for saving my dad’s life,’ and I just lost it.”A day later, Wheeler said, the birthday party went ahead as scheduled, but with little work on her part because “nothing (physically) was working, everything was just putty. God bless my friends … who made the party happen. I just sat in a lawn chair.”Days later she was seeing a chiropractor about pains in her neck and upper back, and still fatigued by her exertions.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org