BRIGHTON — Saturday, April 13, started as a regular day for Randy Gardner, of Toddville, until one wrong move ended with him being sucked in a pond’s overflow pipe, and his life hanging in the balance. It took nearly three hours and the help of 45 strangers to free Gardner, whose experience left him unsure if he would ever walk.
On Monday, June 10, Gardner and his family, along with several volunteers who rushed to his aid, all gathered at the Brighton Fire Hall to celebrate the heroic rescue and retell the story.
Saturday, April 13
Randy Gardner knew his pond, about three miles east of Brighton, had a beaver problem, so he decided to spend his morning mucking out the overflow tube. On this particular day, the water was about three feet high and when he cleared the debris, the tube sucked in as much water as it could and grabbed Randy’s legs in the process. The tube was about 10 inches in diameter, just smaller than the opening of a five-gallon bucket, and pulling him in at a rate of 85,000 psi (pound-force per square inch).
“I was underwater and I could just barely get my lips and nose above water,” he said.
Randy’s son, Matthew, raced to save his father, grabbing him and trying to keep his head above water; getting himself stuck as well. Once Matthew managed to get himself free, the two men had a difficult decion to make.
Not wanting to leave his father, Matthew knew it was the only way he could save him. So he let go and ran to find his cellphone to call for help as his father slipped under the water and into unconsciousness.
Calling for help
Matthew Gardner, 21, grabbed his cellphone, called 911, activated speakerphone and tossed the phone onto the shore before jumping back into the pond to be with his dad. He stayed on the line with the dispatcher until help finally arrived.
Matthew said the moment was “terrifying” because at first, he didn’t realize how serious the accident was but once he realized his dad was completely submerged, fear set in.
“When I couldn’t see him, I still think about that, it was the scariest part,” he said.
After what felt like an eternity, the Brighton Fire Department arrived with mutual aid from Washington Rescue, Washington County Ambulance and the Iowa State Patrol to provide help.
“There was definitely hope at that point,” he said of seeing all the volunteers. “I didn’t think there was any help when we were alone ... (but) once I saw people coming, I knew he had a chance to get out alive.”
Washington Rescue Diver Jerry Guengerich thought he would be recovering a body that April day, but upon arrivng on scene he was elated to learn a rescue was still possible. He suited up and jumped in, holding Randy up for the remainder of the two-hour and 50-minute rescue. That time bonded the two and during the banquet on Monday, it was as if two old friends had been reunited.
At the time of the rescue, however, things weren’t quite so chummy. Guengerich said the water was black, but once he was in it became apparent there was no way for him to pull Randy out unless the water went down. Volunteers called dispatch to see if anyone in the area had a backhoe they could borrow to help dig out the dam to lower the water levels.
Until the backhoe came all Guengerich could do was to try and keep Randy lucid and in good spirits.
Right place, right time
Cara Sorrells, Dispatch Supervisor for the Washington County Communications Center, just happened to stop in the Washington County Communications Center that day when she heard the call asking if anyone in the Brighton area had a backhoe available. She immediately called her husband, who then called Ron Janecek, in Brighton.
Ron and Jane Janecek were on their way out of town when they got a call about needing help with a rescue. They turned their car around and went back to the farm.
Luckily, Ron spent that morning working on equipment and had an excavator nearby. He loaded it on a trailer and had it down to the pond in 45 minutes. He said once he got there, his heart dropped as the reality and severity of the situation settled in.
“I get over the hill and it’s like a little small city. There’s 30, 40 people, cops, ambulances. Then it’s like, ‘OK. This is really serious,’” he said.
He maneuvered the backhoe in and began to dig the dam out to lower the water, which lowered the pressure in the pond, making it possible for rescuers to free Gardner.
Captain Mark Cobb with the Brighton Fire Department said when they first got the call, he hoped it would be for a rescue and not a recovery. He said once they finally got Gardner free, it was a big sigh of relief.
However, the pressure from the pipe caused Gardner to lose all circulation in his legs and when he was pulled to shore, they were completely black. He said it made him instantly sad because although he was free, safe and alive, he was sure he would have to have them amputated.
Crews worked together to get Gardner onto a stretcher where he was then flown by helicopter to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
One last phone call
Lisa Gardner, Randy’s wife, was the last to find out what happened to him. She was in Cedar Rapids when she got the call from her son saying Randy was alive, but was being airlifted to the hospital and she needed to meet them there immediately.
“It was horrible,” she said. “I knew that everyone was alive and OK and so I was very thankful for that, but I had no idea what to expect.”
Looking back on the day, Lisa said she is thankful for the volunteers who pulled off the “miracle” of keeping her husband alive and safe.
“It’s so wonderful to think people are so good and so willing to volunteer their time and efforts to help save people,” she said. “There’s a lot more good than bad in this world.”
Nearly two months after the accident, Randy Gardner has some nerve damage still, but is able to walk. At the banquet Monday night, he was emotional as he shook hands and hugged his rescuers, crediting them for saving his life and pulling off the impossible.
“I can’t thank you guys enough,” he said. “You can go home tonight and know you absolutely saved a life. What you do makes a huge difference and I’m an example of that.”