Oregon, Ogle County first responders’ teamwork saves woman from cold river on December morning

Oregon Fire Chief Mike Knoup presents Greg Hunter (left) with a Medal of Valor for his efforts in saving a woman from the Rock River in December 2022.

OREGON – A woman’s life was saved in 2022 thanks to the training and heroic efforts of first responders who got the call of a person in the icy Rock River – just feet away from the Oregon dam – on a dark and chilly December morning.

A dog and its alert homeowner started the lifesaving events in this small town where the scenic Rock River and its low-head dam draw thousands of visitors, but also require constant training for first responders when accidents happen.

It was 5:11 a.m. Dec. 10, 2022, when Julie Watt’s dog “Pie” woke her up by frantically barking from the Watts’ home on North Fourth Street, overlooking the river from the west bank, north of the dam.

“Oregon has had a dive team for a very long time but the interest in it has been up and down. Seeing the need to provide another service for the community the crews set out to re-form the team.”

—  Oregon Fire Chief Mike Knoup

Watt used a flashlight to shine down on the river to try to see what had piqued Pie’s attention. She saw a woman frantically trying to swim against the current in the river in an attempt to avoid going over the low-head dam.

Watt immediately called 911 and continually shouted out to the woman to “keep fighting” because help was on the way and “they” would save her.

“They” would be a team of first responders.

Oregon police responded to the call first and they relayed to Oregon Fire Chief Mike Knoup that the woman was in the middle of the west channel, swimming.

The air temperature at the time of the rescue was 34 degrees. Saving the woman before she was carried over the dam put all the fire department’s training and resources to the test.

“I don’t think the water was much warmer than 34 degrees,” Knoup said, noting that rescuers were working in the dark before sunrise. “Our swift-water training really made a difference in this rescue.”

The Oregon dam is classified as a “low-head dam” making it difficult to see the dam when on the river at water level.

“Crews were immediately deployed with swift-water suits into the river, but due to her being just a few hundred feet away from the shore crews could not get to her,” Knoup said. “She was struggling that morning.”

Firefighters tried swimming out to the woman as a boat was deployed below the dam in case the victim and firefighters were swept over it, but she was too far out in the channel.

“She was very close to going over the dam,” Knoup said.

Another fire department boat was put in the river above the dam from Kiwanis Park, located behind Conover Square, on the west bank.

Oregon firefighter Greg Hunter, a retired Illinois Department of Natural Resources officer, used his expert boat-handing skills to reach the victim without the boat spilling over the dam. Firefighter Damien Vant pulled the 32-year-old woman into the boat.

“Boat 5382 was deployed into the river with two swift-water technicians. The crew was able to make contact with the victim less than 200 feet from the dam,” Knoup said.

She was brought to shore and taken to KSB Hospital by Oregon EMS. She remained in stable condition during transport and was later admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit.

Police never identified the woman and did not release how she entered the river above the dam, classifying the call as a medical assist. It was estimated she was in the water for about 45 minutes.

Her life was saved by all first responders working together, Knoup said after the incident. “She was successfully saved due to a quick 911 call made by a citizen who heard the victim call for help, fantastic work by our dispatch, quick actions by fire and EMS personnel, and the help of the Oregon Police Department and the Ogle County Sheriff’s Office.”

Knoup praised the fire district’s decision to add swift-water training and its ongoing commitment to training.

“Since 2020, we have sent multiple people to swift-water operations and swift-water technician [training]. On top of those courses, we also chose to send our techs to flood boat operator [training]. As of now, we have eight swift-water technicians/flood boat operators. We have three new full-time employees also set to do all of this training this summer,” he said.

“During the rescue by the dam in 2022 we had two members both trained to the level of technician and boat operator and they performed flawlessly,” he said. “Firefighter Damien Vant was the rescuer and firefighter Greg Hunter was the boat operator. Greg has 30-plus years of boat-operating experience with his previous DNR job that he brings to the table and has been helping our boat operators immensely.”

After the 2022 rescue, Knoup said an effort was made to revive the department’s dive team.

“Oregon has had a dive team for a very long time but the interest in it has been up and down. Seeing the need to provide another service for the community the crews set out to re-form the team,” he said. “Currently the team has seven divers at a basic level of training. We also have three more members starting the journey of becoming a diver. The team is growing and has a list of classes on the agenda for the year to up their level,” he said.

“With the increase of members and training we also have to update equipment, which is the hard part as funding is not unlimited. On the full-time side of things, each member trains approximately 300-400 hours per year, which consists of mostly fire and EMS hours. The Specialty Rescue (swift-water, dive and tech rescue) is just added training needed on top of our already cumbersome schedule. What drives our members to go above and beyond is the knowledge that at any point in time the community may need help and we have to perform at the highest level to save a life,” he said.

Awards given

In May 2023, the fire department held an awards ceremony to celebrate everyone who contributed to the successful rescue.

Medal of Valor recognition was given to firefighters Gregory Hunter and Damien Vant while Medal of Bravery awards were presented to Daniel Groenhagen and Shane Mowry.

Meritorious Unit Citations were presented to Chief Chad Bergstrom, Shane Box, Lindsey Breeden, Dustin Champlain, Toni Giuffre, Daniel Groenhagen, Tim Grote, Lt. Marshal Hackerson, Gregory Hunter, Michael Hoffman, Chief Mike Knoup, Joshua Lehrke, Shane Mowry, Juan Ocampo, Matt Schnorr, Dallas Stalkfleet and Damien Vant.

The fire department also recognized its teamwork with Ogle County Dispatch, Ogle County sheriff’s deputies and the Oregon Police Department.

“Dispatchers Torri Nichols and Susan Steeves were recognized for their amazing dispatching for the rescue call,” Knoup said. “Many times dispatchers are forgotten about yet they play just as important a role as we do. Without our dispatchers being on the top of their game we could not function as well on our end.”

Watt and her dog were also given a Good Samaritan Award.

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Earleen Hinton

Earleen Hinton

Earleen creates content and oversees production of 8 community weeklies. She has worked for Shaw Newspapers since 1985.