Today's Missouri River rescue was rare nexus of skill and luck...and, says one paramedic, the hand of God

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Story and Photos
by Jeff Noedel

Hermann EMS chief Doug Clark has been with Hermann EMS for 18 years.  In all that time, he can only remember one other successful water rescue for the department.  "The majority," he said, "are just recoveries of a body...with the person never making it out of the water.  Few live for more than a few minutes."

PHOTO:  Left, Amanda Meyer, a paramedic with Hermann EMS for more than 3 years, and her partner (right, foreground) Jackie Engemann, EMT with Hermann EMS for 2 years

Today was one of those successful days.  With no discussion, seemingly automatically, when Hermann EMS EMT Engemann arrived at the scene of a man drowning 100 feet off the Gasconade County bank of Missouri River today, she put on a life vest, jumped in the rushing water and brought the man safely to shore.

Two hours after a daring water rescue in the Missouri River, the team of Engemann and paramedic Amanda Meyer were decompressing -- processing the adrenaline-charged event they had just worked through.  While their boss, Clark, was in his office thanking his lucky stars that he did not lose a valuable EMT.

Clark said as soon as the team arrived back at the Hermann EMS headquarters, he congratulated the women for a fine save, and reminded them that he dreads having to tell a husband and children their mom is gone.  He said he had two very different emotions once it was all done.

Clark said clearly it was a unique situation, and Engemann was in a zone in which it was totally her call whether to go int he water or not.  Said Clark, "I wouldn't have encouraged anyone to get into the river.  I would not have said anyone had to get in."  On the other hand, Clark said Engemann's entry into the cold river was not against protocol either.  "She made a spontaneous decision," he said.  "It's hard to train for something like this."

Clark continued, "Sometimes we have to make a decision not to go in.  That is a decision that can be made.  Rule number-one is: 'scene safety.'  This scene was DEFINITELY not secure.  Whether it's a trench collapse, or a flipped car, or a burning house...Rule One is for the first responder not to get hurt."

Engemann recalled the events, which happened rapid-fire.  She said she and Meyer and paramedic Kyle Quick slid on their "duffs" down a steep embankment, over and around brush and small trees.  Hermann volunteer firefighters -- who had coincidentally been working close by -- were already at the river bank.  Meyer said she grabbed a tree while she was sliding down the embankment and the tree uprooted.  She said a firefighter caught her.

Engemann saw the man struggling in the water, and she said she looked around and she was the closest first responder to him.  She told CNL this afternoon, "I wasn't expecting it.  A firefighter started putting a flotation device around me, then a rope around my waist, and I just jumped in."  Her teammate Meyer recalls telling Engemann, "Don't go!"  Meyer was afraid of hypothermia.

All witnesses CNL spoke to agree:  Rick Dixon was running out of time.  Hermann Police Officer Kevin Cross remembers hearing the man yell, "I'm not gonna' make it."  Engemann remembers hearing him say, as she was swimming toward him, "Just let me drown."

Clark and Meyer explained that hypothermia and exhaustion can bring a person struggling in cold water to a point of giving up.  The man was in the cold river for an estimated 25 to 30 minutes.  He had floated an estimated 3/4 of a mile to a mile at that point.  Said Clark, "You can only stay so long.  The hypothermia, the exhaustion.  You give up.  The fact that he fought that long is just amazing."

Engemann's actual moment of rescue of Dixon had the timing of a Hollywood movie.  With Dixon apparently starting to give up, and the Fire Department rescue boat several minutes from the scene, Engemann swam 75 feet until she ran out of rope; she could go no further.  Dixon was still up-river from Engemann, but drifting on a path that would leave him about 10 feet out of Engemann's reach.  Engemann seemed to be Dixon's last hope.  Meyer and Engemann recalled many people calling to Dixon to paddle or steer himself toward Engemann.  He did, and as he floated closer and closer to Engemann, she recalled saying to Dixon, "I'm right here.  Look at me."

Then -- in a window of just a few seconds as he was floating by...she would have just one chance -- Engemann grabbed the back of Dixon's pants and then held Dixon close to her while firemen pulled the two to the bank.

"We got him," radioed Officer Cross.

"He saved his own life, too," Engemann said, referring to Dixon's compliance with the directions being shouted at him.

"I'm NOT a hero," insisted Engemann.  "I don't deserve a commendation, because I don't want other EMTs to think they have to jump in the water like that.  It was very dangerous.  Besides, this was a team effort."

Said Meyer, "I'm so proud of everyone in the whole community.  From the people who called 9-1-1 to the firemen to everyone."

Meyer said the whole event was very emotional after it was over.  Meyer and Engemann describe themselves as "close partners and best friends."  Meyer said of the moments after Dixon was put in the rescue boat and her partner climbed up to the railroad bed, "It was a happy emotional moment.  It was amazing and enlightening.  Everything lined-up in a perfect way.  It was fate."  The two walked up the Union-Pacific railroad tracks, with Meyer's arm over Engemann's shoulders.

Engemann said later, "We go on a lot of calls and help a lot of people.  But it's not every day that you get to save a life."

Clark said he is submitting the whole story to the EMS Journal, a national magazine for paramedics and EMTs.