Three kids trapped in a wheels-up car rapidly filling with water in an icy mountain river...
A frantic father stymied by the forces of nature from rescuing them...
Time fast running out...
And then the chance appearance of a police trainer who, in a test of himself and his sidearm, saved the day with unconventional thinking.
Ready for the Unexpected
The elements of that dramatic scenario converged after a sedan carrying a ski party spun out of control on a snowy canyon road east of Logan, Utah. The trainer — Chris Willden — had expected nothing more that day than completing a mundane errand, replacing a busted TV set.
His reaction when suddenly confronted with a life-or-death emergency exemplifies two fundamentals of professionalism: Be prepared for the unexpected, and when the odds are stacked against you improvise, adapt, and overcome.
An ex-cop, 35-year-old Willden now operates the Strategic Tactical Group, a training facility in Bountiful, Utah, that specializes in honing the firearms skills of current and former military and law enforcement personnel. For nearly six years, he served on PDs in the Salt Lake City area, working bike patrol, SWAT, and gang crimes, among other assignments. Before that, during nearly nine years with the Air Force Security Police, he logged time on a sniper team and as part of the protective unit for President Clinton aboard Air Force One.
Just after noon last New Year’s Eve day, Willden, his father Bruce (a former reserve officer and firearms instructor for Utah POST), and Chris’s 12-year-old son Derek were in a Dodge pickup heading to Logan on mountainous US 89 from a family cabin on Bear Lake about 40 miles northeast of the city. “Our television conked out the night before and we were going down to Walmart to buy a new one,” Willden told PoliceOne.
Driving in the opposite direction on the steep, twisting, two-lane route in a Honda Accord were Roger Anderson, 46, his two children, four-year-old Baylor and nine-year-old Miya, and Miya’s girlfriend Kenya, also nine years old. They were heading up to the Beaver Mountain ski resort.
Their lives intersected in narrow Logan Canyon about 15 miles east of town, at a treacherous bridge across the turbulent Logan River.
“We came around a curve and saw an SUV skewed on the bridge,” Willden says. “The snow plows hadn’t been through yet after the latest storm and the driver must have hit a slick spot and skidded.”
Behind the wheel of the pickup, Willden’s dad slowed down. “Two women ran toward us from the mini-van yelling something about kids,” Willden says. Then he saw the real problem.
Down about a 10-foot bank from the highway, a Honda Accord lay upside-down in the Logan River. Later Willden would learn that just moments earlier the driver, Roger Anderson, who’d been following behind the SUV, had hit his brakes when the van skidded and had himself spun out on a patch of ice. No guardrail, boulders, or trees were there to stop him, and the car veered off the pavement and rolled down the embankment into the river, landing on its top.
Now the women rushing to the pickup made clearer their alarming cries: Children were trapped inside the stricken car.
Quick Thinking, Rapid Action
Willden was out of the truck before it came to a complete stop. Shucking his coat and tossing his wallet, he lunged through snow and brush down the embankment and leaped into the river. “It was 14 degrees out and all I could think was, Oh, this is gonna be so cold!” Willden remembers.
A man Willden later knew as Anderson was clawing at the car in waist-deep water. “My kids, my kids!” he screamed. Stumbling over the rocky riverbed, Willden forced his way toward him through the numbing, powerful current.
Anderson had escaped the car through a shattered driver’s window but then the strong current had shifted the vehicle enough that that opening was no longer accessible. The youngsters, restrained by seat belts and a car seat, were inside, with the water rapidly filling the passenger compartment.
The force of the water kept Willden from opening doors and except for the inaccessible driver’s window all the glass was intact. He wasn’t able to generate enough power to kick out a window under water. He even climbed onto the up-facing chassis in search of an opening there, in vain.
“I had tunnel vision, completely focused on the car,” Willden says. “I was determined to get the kids out, but I didn’t know how, and I was afraid they’d be dead by the time I got to them. Time is life, and time was running out.”
Willden decided his only option was to roll the dice in a desperate gamble.
Whenever he goes into the outer world, Willden habitually carries a sidearm in a leather holster on his right hip. The pistol he had with him that day was a Glock 23. Like most of his body, it was underwater that that moment, but Willden drew it and pressed the muzzle against a corner of the rear passenger window. With the barrel angled down toward the roof of the car resting on the riverbed, he squeezed off a single round.
“I knew the bullet would lose velocity very quickly in the water,” he says. “I just prayed it would break the glass.” It did.
Without pausing to rake the frame, Willden holstered and reached both arms into the vehicle, “feeling around for arms, legs, clothing, hair — anything I could grab that might be people. All I got was handfuls of cold water.”
By now, other vehicles had stopped on the highway and half a dozen men were coming down the embankment into the river, including Willden’s dad. “Someone yelled, ‘We’re gonna flip the car!’,” Willden recalls. “We all got on one side and started lifting.”
Soon the vehicle raised enough that Willden could see a dazed-looking young girl (Kenya) seat-belted in the backseat. “Luckily, she’d been in an air pocket in the car and was still conscious,” he says. He pulled a Columbia River folding knife from his pocket, one of two blades he invariably carries, and cut her free. He pulled her from the car by her shirt and handed her off to another of the rescuers.
Willden then spotted another girl (Miya) “floating face-down in the front seat.” She apparently had been able to release her own seat belt but had been unable to escape further. Willden’s father pulled her out, “but she did not appear to be breathing. She was as grey and blue as can be and as limp as a doll.”
Finally, floating on the rear driver’s side, they found a little boy (Baylor), strapped in a car seat. “I saw that his eyes were open and I thought, Yes!” Willden says. “Then I realized his eyes were rolled back in his head and only the whites were showing.”
Willden cut him free with the same knife and the boy, unconscious, was passed with the girls up the embankment to a crowd gathered on the highway. Among those waiting was a physician who’d happened on the scene en route to the ski slopes.
A Sheepdog in Training
By the time Willden — numb, sopping wet, arms bleeding from glass cuts — dragged himself out of the water and up the bank, he felt nearly in a semiconscious state of his own. “I remember a group working on the kids,” he says, “but I can’t tell you if they were men, women, dogs, or aliens.”
His son, meantime, had been thinking ahead. Willden calls him “a sheepdog in training.” He had a blanket ready for Willden to wrap in as soon as he stripped off his wet clothes and he’d turned the pickup truck’s heater up to maximum to create a warm cocoon as a refuge. “I had absolutely no feeling in my feet,” Willden says. But he and his father soon dried off and thawed out with no permanent damage.
The kids from the car survived, too. Miya and Baylor, the most endangered, were resuscitated at the scene, and all were taken to Logan by ambulance, then air-lifted to a hospital in Salt Lake City. They suffered hypothermia but recovered to good health. Willden’s heroic actions were credited for their happy outcome.
Willden offers the following teaching points:
1.) “Regardless of the comfort level, always carry a knife, a gun, and a flashlight. These are three things I never leave home without, and two of them came in very handy that day.”
2.) “Keep your first aid and CPR certification up.”
3.) “Train in the most inopportune, worst weather you can find. If you can accomplish things in crappy weather, it will be so much easier to deal with bad things that happen in good weather.”
4.) “Seat belts are not easy to cut. Even with a razor-sharp blade, I had to saw through Kenya’s. I now carry a seat belt cutter and a glass breaker in my car.”
5.) “I know the Glock people won’t advocate it, but I always wondered if my pistol would shoot underwater, so I tried it about five years ago. Standing in that river, I had full faith that the gun would do what I needed it to do.”
Fellow-trainer John Farnam of Defense Training International adds this observation:
“There were several other well-meaning citizens present, who bravely endured the freezing waters that day. But only Chris was truly prepared. He had the necessary tools at hand and the boldness to unhesitatingly take unilateral, dicey, audacious action, not waiting around for ‘someone else’ to ‘do something.’
“Through preparation and boldness, he snatched victory from the jaws of disaster.”