A pair of quick-thinking electric cooperative lineworkers risked hypothermia to perform a water rescue in eastern Oregon’s Umatilla Forest, coming to the aid of a driver, passenger and dog after their minivan crashed into a creek.
Columbia Power Cooperative Association’s Garrett Warner and Jack Jewell pulled up to the scene of the June 20 accident shortly after it happened on Highway 395, a two-lane road with lots of sharp turns on the Grant-Umatilla county line in Oregon.
The pair were driving in separate vehicles on the highway when Warner, a line apprentice, saw “personal items” floating down Camas Creek, which runs parallel to the road.
Those items belonged to the driver and passenger of a Kia minivan that had rolled off a 20-foot bank and drifted another 60 to 70 feet up the creek before settling on its side. The passenger was standing on the bank shivering, and the driver was standing in the back seat of the wrecked van with the dog.
“It was a pretty bad wreck because the car had rolled at least twice and traveled up the river about 70 feet before luckily landing on its side,” said Warner, who contacted Jewell, a journeyman-lineman.
By Warner’s estimate, the car was submerged in 3 to 4 feet of water. With air temperatures in the mid-60s, hypothermia was a threat, and the lineworkers had to move quickly. They tied a handline to the vehicle to keep from being swept away in the strong current, made even more treacherous by recent heavy rains.
Holding on to the handline and sidestepping big rocks in waist-deep water, Warner waded out to the car while Jewell stayed on the bank with the passenger, Lilly Papadopoulos, 19, of Olivehurst, California. The lineworkers provided her with dry, warm clothing.
The driver, Cheryl Patterson, 69, also of Olivehurst, “luckily was in good enough condition to hand me the small dog,” said Warner. She then climbed out of the car and made her way back to Jewell, who helped her and the dog to safety.
In news reports, an Oregon state trooper said when the van began sliding on the highway, Patterson overcorrected and hit the gravel on the shoulder of the road. She went around a curve before flipping the vehicle over two to three times and rolling it into the creek.
Emergency responders arrived shortly after the lineworkers rescued Patterson, and they took the women to a hospital in Pendleton. They were both treated for minor injuries, according to news reports.
Half of the “frontier” co-op’s 11 full-time employees are lineworkers, and they attend comprehensive, routine safety and first-aid training. That training and an attachment to their community helped save the day, said General Manager Lisa Atkin.
“Linework is assessing risks in a safe manner,” said Warner. “Everything we do is dangerous, but you find ways to mitigate the hazards, so that’s what we did.”
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer for NRECA.