Daniel Beck and Jared Beck
Growing up in Aberdeen, Idaho as a farm kid in a family of 11 prepared me for moments in life I had no idea I’d ever face. The irrigation canal that ran along the side of our property provided countless hours of pain, fun and training. Being the seventh child of nine meant that I learned a lot of things just by watching my older brothers and sisters. From learning to ride a bike to learning how to build a bike ramp. From learning how to shoot a gun to learning how to hunt and fish. From learning how to swim, to learning how to save a life.
When I was about five or six years old, I ventured out to the canal bank to watch my brothers and sisters swim and play “Alligator.” I didn’t know how to swim but they all made it look easy. I’d played in the water a lot, but it was usually at the reservoir where I could go along the beach and control how deep the water was with a few gradual steps, but this day, I really wanted to get into the canal with my brothers and sisters. The canal had a relatively mild current and it maintained a depth in the middle of about 3 ½ to 4 feet. Closer to the bank it was only about 2 feet deep. I started by stepping off the bank, gripping the long broad grass with both hands. The water was cool and refreshing, a contrast to the hot dry summer air. I was about 10 feet upstream from where my siblings were playing. From where they always played. For years, season after season, the boundaries within which we played remained the same. Over the years we dug at the muddy bottom to make mud pies, throw handfuls of mud at each other, and for building up diving platforms. The evidence of our playing remains to this day more than 30 years later. That section of the canal is a couple of feet deeper and a couple of feet wider than the surrounding canal areas. It looks like an overused watering hole for a herd of wildebeests. The area was well trampled. My first time in the canal would be the first time I would learn about the abrupt change in depth in a matter of just one slippery step.
The mud under my bare feet was soft and squishing between my toes as I slowly walked and hopped with my chin in the air, water up to my ears. The splashing and screeching of my brothers and sisters made me want to wade downstream just a touch more to be in the middle of the fun. With one step, I felt the mud beneath me turn from soft and squishy to hard and slippery with an abrupt downward, downstream slope. Both of my feet slipped out from under me, my feet going up and forward while I sunk, bum first, underwater that was over my head.
I started to panic, trying to grab something, anything to pull myself up so that I could breath; there was nothing to grab. I tried to get my feet underneath me by trying to dig in and grip with my toes; it was too slick and hard. I allowed myself to drop down into a crouch and jumped from the bottom. My head came out just long enough to take a breath before going under again. I repeated this for what seemed like an eternity. I mistimed my jumping/breathing sequence and took some water into my lungs. I tried to yell for help but I only bobbed out of the water long enough for a short gulp of air, and then back underwater I went. Suddenly I was lifted out of the water by my oldest sibling Pollyanna. I coughed and burped for a few minutes and then I started to cry.
I had nearly drowned in the very place that meant so much fun and enjoyment. Pollyanna did the best thing she could have done. She comforted me for a minute then eased me right back into the water…the shallow water. She showed me how to get back to the bank and climb out by grabbing the grass. She did this with me a few times as my confidence grew. Before long, I was swimming. Not long after that, I was running and jumping from the bank. It seemed like overnight I was diving and swimming like a fish. My experience could have engrained a lifelong fear of the water but Pollyanna’s intervention and teaching prevented that. Had I not had that traumatizing experience at all, I may have acquired a dangerous overconfidence. Because of that experience, to this day I have a very healthy respect for the potential dangers of water with an equally healthy level of confidence as a strong swimmer in these murky waters. But, I would be tested—more than once.
I swam in several swimming pools over the years but the majority of my swimming experiences were in irrigation canals, rivers and lakes. Often times the depths were unknown and the waters were murky. I learned to ease into unknown waters, check for debris or obstacles and then check the depth before any head first diving. I spent a lot of time in water. I love to swim and I grew to be quite proud of a muscular physique with sun bronzed skin. I felt like a Greek God, and being seen in swimming trunks almost felt like my duty.
While swimming at the lake, I would challenge myself by swimming as far away from the shore as I dared, and then swimming back. Then, I would do it again, going further and further out, not reserving any energy for the swim back. My brothers had taught me how to float on my back nearly motionless. I would use this method to rest and then go further.
My brothers, sisters, cousins and buddies and I worked hard during the summer moving irrigation pipe or taking care of livestock, as well as “picking rock,” by hand which meant removing large rocks from the fields. Then, in the heat of the day, we would reward ourselves by “taking a dip” in the nearest water source we could find. One such Saturday afternoon, three friends and I went to an area of the American Falls Reservoir called, Big Hole, located directly east of Aberdeen, Idaho. The lake was just a couple of miles from my home. Travis, John, Cain and I went to Big Hole to do some cliff diving. (To this day, I find it odd and disgraceful that my younger brother Daniel wasn’t with us. He was my right hand man and he and Cain were like conjoined twins. I think he was working out of town that day with our brother-in-law.)
It was late in the summer and the water level at the lake was dropping very fast. This meant that the cliffs at Big Hole would be higher which meant more fun. It was also a time to be extra cautious because before long, the water would be too shallow to survive a dive. We estimated that the highest cliff was about 35-40 feet from the cliff top to the surface of the water, and that this would likely be the last safe-ish diving for the season. The four of us jumped and dove several times. After each dive, we climbed the lava rock face, back to the top. The rocks were sharp and jagged, so we wore our wrestling shoes for the climb back. Shoes were great for stickers, cactus, thorns, and rocks, but they definitely bogged you down for any real distance swimming. For cliff diving, it wasn’t a big deal because we were never more than about 20 feet from the rock face.
Big Hole is a cove in the rocks. It sets back from the more open waters of the lake and is shaped like a big round bowl, opening up in the east. We would dive from the south rim facing the north rim approximately 200 feet across. It was suggested that we swim across to the north side where some water was caught in some lavas looking just like a Jacuzzi. Being the competitive types that we are, it was quickly decided that we would race to the other side. Just before the countdown to go, Cain pulled me aside. He told me that he wasn’t that confident at swimming and he didn’t want to go. Cain was always cautious and he could be quite shy so his reluctance wasn’t alarming to me. I asked him if he could “doggy paddle,” he said that he could. I told him, I wouldn’t race. I’d take time and swim alongside him. He agreed. After John and Travis dove in and took off for the north rim, Cain and I leisurely worked our way across.
Since John, Travis and I were going to race, we had taken our shoes off, foregoing the comfort on the rocks for swimming ability. I saw Cain take his shoes off as well. What I didn’t see was that he thought better of it and put them back on just before we went into the water. To make matters worse, he left the shoes untied. His shoes instantly filled with water creating weight and drag. Being a less experienced and less confident swimmer and having shoes full of water would prove fatal in most cases. I wish I’d seen Cain put his shoes back on. John and Travis were off in their sprint across Big Hole while Cain and I sauntered along. Cain seemed a little too labored in his efforts, but I stayed right beside him. As we reached the midway point, I saw Cain looking around. He realized that the shore was just as far away in every direction. We were in the center of the bowl, about 100 feet from the closest dry land and about 20 feet to the dark green bottom. Fighting the water in his shoes, Cain was physically fatigued, realizing there was not a bank nearby, panic was setting in for him.
The water was already cold, but I could feel the temperature drop as we neared the center. Big Hole is fed by a series of springs. The deeper water and the springs bubbling up cool the water drastically. I could feel my muscles tightening and I wasn’t working half as hard as Cain. “Jared,” Cain cried out, “I’m not going to make it!” I responded, “Sure you are. You’re ok. You’re doing great.” “No, Jared, Jared!” and down he went. I couldn’t believe it. I reached to grab him, expecting to pull him up, instead he pulled me down! We were both completely underwater and Cain was frantically grabbing for anything to pull himself back up. That anything was me. I kicked my feet hard, paddling to stop our descent. I managed to get us both above water but only briefly. On the ground, I could have lifted Cain above my head unless he was punching and kicking me, but in the water I had nothing to push from, only the propulsion of my paddling feet.
John and Travis had just reached the north rim. Their race was physically exerting through the same frigid waters. Just like when I was five years old in the canal, I was only above water long enough to get my next breath, not long enough to yell for help. I realized that without John and Travis helping, Cain and I would die right there. In the brief moments when I came up for air, I would see that they had their backs to us, clinging to the rocks. In order to yell for help, I had to go against my instincts and let go of Cain. Even worse, I’d have to swim a stroke away from him to keep him from pulling me down, but without the help of my other two buddies, we weren’t going to make it. I pushed Cain away and yelled, “Help! Now!” John and Travis looked back at me and I yelled one more time, “HELP!” I then went underwater and found Cain, his head already about three feet below the surface. The clubbing and clawing ensued but I managed to get us both up for air a couple of times. I wasn’t able to see if John and Travis were coming back, but I trusted that they were.
For a second, I pictured Cain’s mom and dad getting the tragic news about their only child. I wouldn’t allow it. I thought about the day that Pollyanna pulled me out of the canal. Even before I left the water, I stopped my panic as soon as she lifted me up, so I could breathe. That’s it! I just needed Cain to take a few good breaths so that he could feel the calm and comfort of air in his lungs. I had the trust that John and Travis were getting close. I took one last big breath and got below Cain. He was facing me so I grabbed his ribcage with both hands, extended my arms above my head and paddled my feet, straight upward. At first, it worked, Cain was almost completely relaxed with his head well above water.
Being cold, exhausted, and deprived of air, and with lactic acid building up in my legs, my adrenalin was running out. I knew from playing alligator with my brothers and sisters that I could stay underwater much longer than the initial signal that my lungs sent to my brain saying that it’s time to breath, but I was absolutely spent. My legs were slowing and I could feel us sinking again. I realized that this would be my demise. I was perfectly ok with it as long as John and Travis could get to Cain in time. Then all at once, I couldn’t kick my legs anymore. I tried but they wouldn’t move. I had breathed out nearly all of my air and my lungs were like a vacuum longing to suck in air. This was it. We started dropping fast and then… Cain was moving away from me. His legs were limp as I felt the other two sets of legs paddling away from me toward the north rim. My lungs were burning trying to involuntarily breathe in what would have been nothing but green water. Using just my arms, I started swimming slowly to the surface. I felt myself starting to black out just as my face broke into the hot summer air. I gasped and went under again. Leaning forward and tucking my knees up to my stomach I did a froglike kick and got another large breath of air, rolled to my back and floated for what seemed like all afternoon. Eventually, I started a very slow and lazy back stroke to the side where my three buddies were silently holding on to the rocks. It took some time before we had the strength to pull ourselves out of the water. We decided to walk back around Big Hole to the truck rather than swim. Now Cain was the lucky one, he had shoes on.
About 20 years later, I was working as a Power County Sherriff Deputy in Southeast Idaho. I was a k9 handler. One hot Sunday afternoon, my dog Spike had made a mess in the back of my patrol car. I bought some donuts and Mountain Dew to trade a few jail inmates in return for their cleaning services. They were actually glad to do it.
I was recovering from recent kidney surgery but I was cleared for work. This day though, was particularly rough. I was bleeding and in a lot of pain. I was the only patrolman on duty, but I really felt like I should be at home in bed. I called the Lieutenant at home and told him that I was feeling very rough and that I’d like to take some sick time for the remainder of my shift. He made a few phone calls before calling me back with the bad news. We were always understaffed as it was, but this day was worse. A couple of guys were out of town on their days off and just wouldn’t be able to cover for me. He told me to spend the rest of my shift “taking it easy” and being reactive as opposed to proactive. I could type a couple reports, study the policy manual and let some inmates clean dog poop out of my Dodge Charger. So, I bought the snacks for the inmates and stood by chatting and joking with them in the enclosed Sally Port while they washed the car inside and out. We were interrupted by the dispatcher calling me on the radio, “2008, Power County… Respond to Ramsey Road approximately one quarter mile west of Arbon Valley Highway for a report of an adult male who went underwater in the canal and hasn’t come back up.” “Twenty oh-eight in route,” I replied over the radio. I loaded Spike, the drug sniffing chocolate Labrador into his seat, activated lights and siren, and took off. I had about one mile of town, 12 miles of Interstate 86 and two miles of Highway to navigate before a rescue attempt could begin. The Power County Ambulance was dispatched and Deputy Williams, who was a Marine patrol deputy at the American Falls Reservoir was also responding. The area where I was headed was within the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, this meant more available resources. While roaring down the interstate, I asked dispatch to send search and rescue, Fort Hall Police, Fort Hall EMT’s and the canal company. I then asked her to check with Idaho State Police and department of Fish and Game to see if either agency had officers closer to the scene than me. They did not. Trying to navigate the Sunday afternoon Interstate traffic was absolutely aggravating. A man’s life was on the line and people wouldn’t move over to let me pass, yielding to my emergency lights and siren. One girl just stopped her car in the middle of the left lane right in front of me, a line of tractor trailers in the lane to the right. I remember wishing that I had a bag of baseballs to throw at her car.
When I arrived at the scene, I found four Mexican men running up and down the canal bank, frantically looking into the water. One man was probing the canal with a wooden ladder. Being just a couple of miles from my own house, I was somewhat familiar with this canal. It was much deeper, wider, and had a more swift current than the canal that I grew up playing in. I knew that they had just dredged it out that spring, making the sides a straight down drop as opposed to the gradual trough shape. I also knew that if there was any chance at survival, he would have to get out now so that CPR could begin. “Power County, Twenty oh-eight,” I called to dispatch. “Go ahead 2008.” “I’ll be out of radio contact, I’m going in the water.” I stripped down and asked in Spanish where the man entered the water. This was an amazing form of dialect for me since I don’t’ speak Spanish. I speak a little Spanish, just enough to make me sound funny or to almost order a meal at Tres Hermanos but at this call, I was conversing back and forth without even thinking about it. They spoke no English and yet we all understood each other perfectly! No doubt a higher power was assisting me just as He had in prior critical incidents, and would several times again throughout my life and especially my law enforcement career.
They showed me the exact spot where he had entered the water and I marked it with a traffic cone. It wouldn’t make any sense to search upstream from there so this gave me a starting point. Drowning victims can be resuscitated and saved, but I knew that this man was likely, currently dead, and I was about to go into the very water that killed him. I quickly scanned the area for any likely power source that may have electrified the water; I saw none. I scanned to look for an open water gate channeling the water elsewhere or an irrigation pump that might suck me down; I saw none. I scanned for any cattle fencing or other debris that might entangle me; I saw none. Sticking with my personal safety policy to never dive head first into unknown murky water, I grabbed the grass at the edge of the bank and stepped in. The water was even deeper right at the edge than I had anticipated and it was very cold. I had been sweating and bleeding under my bullet proof vest, and the stark contrast in temperature took my breath away. My feet went down stream and came upward as my body sank, bum first, under water. I’d been here before, but I was prepared. I realized that this was exactly what had happened to the victim, who didn’t know how to swim. He likely breathed in water and sank very quickly. I swam to the bottom and felt around. The water was about eight feet deep, cold and swift. I had to fight the current to maintain my search grid. Help started to arrive. The Power County Ambulance, Fort Hall EMT’s and Deputy Williams. A passerby even assisted in the search, but I was the only one in the water, searching the depths. After familiarizing myself with the depth, I felt comfortable enough with the waterway to start diving in. This was a much more efficient way to get to the bottom of the canal, feel around, swim to the other side, get out and do it again.
On about the fourth pass, I had a hard to describe or explain sense that somebody was right beside me. I believed that the victim was there, to my left. Again, the Good Lord above was guiding my search efforts. I knew I’d swim right to him on the next pass. I got out for a fresh breath of air and dove right back in. Just as I made it to the bottom- center, I found him. He was laying on his back with his knees bent. I surfaced, treading water facing the current, “I FOUND HIM,” I shouted. “Throw me a rope!” Somebody on the bank threw a 10 foot long piece of blue bailing twine. While paddling with my feet to stay afloat and to maintain my location, I quickly tied a noose in one end of the twine, and then swam back to the bottom. The mud was so stirred up that I couldn’t see anything underwater. The entire event was done by feel. I grabbed his leg to put the noose over his foot. Boots! Untied leather work boots! They had filled with water and dropped the non-swimmer to the bottom like a sack full of potatoes. I secured the noose, grabbed him by the leg, pinning his foot between my left arm and my chest and lunged toward the surface, side stroking with my right arm and legs. I flung the loose end of the rope onto the bank and the people there pulled while I pushed. He was out of the water! The people on the bank looked quietly at the young man’s lifeless body. Still in the water, I yelled at them “Get to work! Start CPR!” One of the Power County EMT’s whom I won’t name, replied, “He’s been under for 30 minutes.” “I don’t care,” I yelled. “The water is cold! We’re working him!” A Fort Hall EMT responded, “You all heard the man, get to work!” They started chest compressions and rescue breathing. I jumped out of the water and ran to my patrol car. “Power County, 2008, victim has been pulled from the water and CPR is started. Cancel other responding search and rescue units and send life flight to the following GPS coordinates…” I gave the location, and then started clearing some aluminum pipe from the field to prepare a helicopter landing zone. I laid out the landing zone then checked the status of the victim. They told me that he wasn’t breathing on his own but that he had a weak pulse. The victim was a 19 year old boy. He had three younger brothers and a mom living in Mexico. He had come to the United States to start a new life for his impoverished family. He would send his paychecks home so that as soon as there was enough money, his next brother would come to Idaho to work. He worked for a farmer that I know well. A friend of my family from Aberdeen and my sister, Amy’s classmate.
I heard Life Flight before I saw it, but it was soon well within view flying right towards us from Pocatello. This really got my hopes up. Here came the big guns! This young man would be in the E.R. in a few minutes! But, Life Flight flew over and kept going! I ran to my patrol car, switched the radio to the life flight frequency and called them. “Life flight, this is Power County 2008, you just passed the landing zone. Keep an eye out for Power-lines to the North and the South, both running east to west, no wind at the ground level.” “2008, life fight, we see your landing zone, unfortunately we’ve been redirected to an injury crash in Cassia County with a critical but more viable patient. Advanced Life Support is headed your way by ground, ETA five minutes.
I realized that I was messy from the canal mud but I was completely dry now, running around in almost nothing. Teams were still taking turns with CPR so I took a moment to put my uniform back on. I started moving emergency vehicles so that ALS could have direct access upon arrival. ALS arrived like an emergency room on wheels. I saw them stick a long needle into the boys’ chest, injecting medicine directly into his heart. I still had hope. The victim looked a lot like one of my nephews. The braces on his teeth amplified his youthful appearance. If he was my nephew or my son, I would want ALL life saving measures to be attempted. He wasn’t my nephew or my son but the treatment remained the same.
I walked out to the landing zone, gathered up my cones and reconnected the aluminum irrigation pipe. I went back to check the status of the victim and saw all of the medical personnel packing up their supplies. A pure white sheet covered the boy’s body except for one foot with a piece of blue bailing twine still tied to the ankle. I wasn’t ready to accept it. “What are you guys doing?” The Fort Hall medic who initialized CPR put his arm around me. He had some very uplifting and kind words for me that I will never forget. He said, “Deputy Beck, what you did here was simply amazing. When I first saw you pulling him out of the water and shouting orders for us to start CPR, I thought you were a family member of the victim. You are truly passionate and it was exactly what we all needed to see. You took complete control of the scene and guided and directed everybody in a professional yet very firm manner. Ultimately, we were just too late.” He continued, “Any chance that this young man had at survival, YOU gave him. Even though he didn’t make it, he and his family are blessed for having you as the responding unit. I doubt that most officers would have dove in and started searching for someone who they didn’t see go under with their own eyes. Secondary to trying to save the life is trying to find the body. Drowning and staying underwater, lost is never a good thing for a family to have to go through, on top of the death, they have to deal with the search for the remains and the water is never good to those remains. Because of you though, this family will have the closure of seeing him soon if they so wish. Thank you for your hard work and example to all of the first responders here.”
The farm employer and family friend, Marty, was there now. It was a tragic and somber time. Marty and I stood quietly watching the canal water passing by at our feet. “Marty,” I said, “look at the water. On a day like today, it just looks so inviting and safe. We both grew up swimming in water just like this.” “I was just thinking the same thing,” Marty replied.