Wisc. officer saves boy from raging river

By Scott Williams
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinell

MENOMONEE FALLS, Wisc. Years of training and experience told police Officer Phil Grabski never to jump into a raging river without backup officers there to help.

But none of that mattered Monday as a 12-year-old boy clung to some branches in the Little Menomonee River and shouted that he was losing his grip.

Grabski plunged into the river transformed by weekend rain into a dangerous torrent and risked his own life to pull the boy to safety.

"There's just no other word to describe it: The man is a hero," Butler Fire Chief Ron Worgull said.

The boy, identified as Alexander "Alex" Kolenda of Butler, emerged from the harrowing incident with only mild symptoms of hypothermia.

After a brief visit to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, he was recuperating back home, where family members later declined to talk about the dramatic river rescue.

According to police and fire officials, Alex, who will be a seventh-grader at Templeton Middle School, had ventured into Frontier Park to chase frogs with his brother, Robert, and a friend, Justin Korth, both 14.

Officials described the older brother as legally blind.

Justin, who described himself as Alex's best friend, said the group visited the river many times and usually found it shallow enough to walk across. On this day, however, a weekend of relentless rainstorms had created a deep and dangerous current.

"It just looked like a lake or something," Justin said.

Shortly before noon, Alex slipped off a log and fell into the fast-moving water. Justin tried to pull his friend to safety and momentarily fell into the river himself.

"I tried to grab him, but I couldn't," Justin recalled. "And I told him, 'Hold on, I'm going to go get help.' "

After a passer-by called 911, Grabski was the first responder on the scene. He found the 12-year-old precariously clinging to branches out in the middle of the river. Fighting to stay afloat, the boy pleaded for help and shouted that he was losing his grip.

Grabski knew that police and fire officials are taught never to attempt a water rescue alone. But he also sensed that if Alex lost grip and floated downstream, there might not be another chance to save him.

So the 33-year-old officer shed some of his police gear and headed out into the chilly water, which was moving so rapidly that it nearly knocked him over.

"It even surprised me, how strong it was," he recalled. "I've never been in waters that quick."

Struggling to navigate the violent current, the 6-foot-tall police officer felt his feet barely touch the river bottom. And the rushing water came up to his chin.

Unable to reach his target initially, Grabski went back to shore and lodged an estimated 20-foot-long tree trunk between the shoreline and the cluster of branches holding Alex. He then shinnied back out holding the trunk with his hands overhead and dragged the boy safely back to shore while holding onto the log.

The tree trunk that served as their lifeline, Grabski said, could have fallen into the water at any moment, leaving them helpless against the tide.

Grabski, an 11-year veteran of the Butler Police Department, downplayed the heroic rescue.

"Anyone would've done the same thing, if you'd seen a kid in the river who says, 'I can't hold on anymore,' " he said.

Worgull, however, said it took special courage to head into the flooded river without any backup or special equipment.

"No ropes. No nothing," the fire chief said. "He just took off his gun belt and went in."

Worgull said he believes the boy would have drowned if Grabski had not acted so quickly.

"The kid was in trouble," the chief said. "He was very lucky."

Copyright 2007 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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