WHITE SPRINGS, Fla. — “It was hot.”
That was the first recollection of Peter Shanks, a park ranger at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, of July 3, 2017.
That day, Shanks as well as fellow rangers Gary Erixton, Kevin Pittman, Brandy Nethery and Andrea Thomas saved a family after an incident at Big Shoals State Park. Several kayaks had already capsized in the shoals with one person feared dead, two children clinging to a rock and two more people stuck in a kayak afraid they were next to capsize.
The five rangers were honored Friday in a ceremony at Stephen Foster and were awarded Lifesaver Medals for their rescue efforts by Eric Draper, the Director of the Florida State Parks.
Those efforts began around 10 a.m. when the call came in with two of the five rangers not even working that Monday due to the upcoming holiday. But Shanks was called in by Pittman to help and Thomas, who was at home sick, also answered the call that came in across the park’s system.
When they arrived at Big Shoals and were met by Erixton, the three soon made contact with members of the family. Thomas, who later found the grandfather that was feared to have drowned downstream, also spotted the grandmother on the bank in an alcove beneath the other rangers as she arrived on the other side of the river.
“The shoals were loud enough we couldn’t hear her yelling and we were all yelling for her to answer us,” Pittman said.
Even though they knew where she was, the rescue still wasn’t easy. The bank was straight down and Pittman said there was barely room to stand in front of the woman, who had a broken ankle.
Still, he and Shanks managed to put some recent on-the-side rope rescue training to work in getting her up safely.
Shanks and Pittman both were trained fire fighters and had served in the military. Pittman had also been spending time working with Shanks on techniques for rope rescues.
“We just fell back on what we knew,” he said. “It was one of those things, right or wrong, we’re going to do what we needed to do.
“Up until that day, we had never done any rope rescues with live people. It was just us playing and learning.”
The other rescues also had their own set of problems. Still in a kayak in the river were a father and a 4-year-old son that couldn’t reach out to catch the rope from the rangers due to fear of capsizing.
Erixton, though, suggested they have the trapped kayakers try to cast their fishing line over to them.
That plan worked as the boy proved a good aim from what the rangers said was from the middle of the river.
“He was a dead shot with that rod and reel,” Pittman said. “He nailed us.”
Thomas later had to help guide Hamilton County EOC up the river in their boat in order to reach the two boys trapped on the rock because the shoals were too powerful to drive the boat up to them.
“It’s too powerful,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t matter how much you rev your engine.”
The whole rescue took around two hours with the rangers then also spending time fishing the kayaks and canoes out of the river as well.
“It’s kind of awe-inspiring, the people I work with,” Park Manager Manny Diaz said Friday during the awards ceremony, which also included Nutrien’s Mike Williams making a $15,000 donation to Stephen Foster for repair work on the carillon bells.
And while the rangers were honored and celebrated Friday, they weren’t so sure what the outcome would be as they headed to the big shoals that July 2017 day.
In fact, Pittman and Shanks were worried they could get in trouble.
“We had accepted responsibility for what we were doing,” Pittman said as Shanks added they figured it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
“We knew we could get injured but that’s just our part in it. We just want to make sure nobody gets hurt and that everybody has fun and goes home.”