River Rescue: The Hero Dog Who Saved a Drowning Girl

The man saw a little girl struggling in the icy water, beyond his reach. He shouted to his dog, “Rocky, go get the girl!”

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River Rescue: The Hero Dog Who Saved a Drowning Girl

Krymzen and Samara Wagner-Sunshine belt out their favourite Justin Bieber song
as they run to the woodland behind their Edmonton home. It’s 4 p.m. on Easter Sunday in 2013, and there’s still snow on the ground. The sisters love Rundle Park in the river valley. It’s a perfect place to play while their mom, Miranda Wagner, is busy preparing the family’s festive dinner.

They run down the hill, then scamper along a path to some trees near a footbridge. From here they can see the North Saskatchewan River snaking through the valley, ice spreading out from its banks.

Before long they get bored. Krymzen, who is 10 and has dark hair and a determined mien, leads the way. Samara, a year younger, round-faced and dimpled, follows. They’re heading to the one place their mom has told them never to go: the river.

They start taking little shuffling steps across the ice, dipping their rubber boots into the water. Then they hear a big crack.

Rocky isn’t ready to go home. The eight-year-old husky-Labrador mix is racing ahead of Adam and Kelsey Shaw and trying to sniff around as much as possible before it’s time to leave. He’s a big, good-natured dog with an independent streak and a passion for retrieving.

The Shaws, from nearby Fort Saskatchewan, like the park and its cleared paths, which makes it easier to push the double stroller that holds their two sleeping toddlers. Over three hours, they’ve seen only a handful of people–hardy types like them who don’t mind the cold. At about 4:20 p.m. they’re crossing the Rundle Park footbridge on the way back to the parking lot when they hear screams.

They look over the side of the bridge and spot a girl who has fallen through the ice and another trying to haul her to safety.

“We see you!” they shout down to them. “Help is coming!”

Adam, 28, tells Kelsey to call 9-1-1. Then he turns to the dog. “Rocky,” he says, “we’re going down.” He and Rocky slip and slide down the same hill the girls took just minutes earlier.

Adam sinks into snow up to his hips but doesn’t stop.

Krymzen sees the couple calling to them from the bridge. But she can’t wait. Samara’s in the water. After hearing the crack, Krymzen turned around fast and got back to safety. Samara didn’t.

“Samara, can you reach my hand?” she cries as her sister flails in the water.

Then the ice breaks under Krymzen, too. She falls into the river but manages to grab a solid ledge of ice, holding on until the man and his dog arrive. The man lifts her out and sets her down.

“That’s my wife up there on the bridge,” he says, pointing. “She’s called 9-1-1 and she’s going to help you. Wait there. Don’t move.”

Krymzen shivers. “My sister!” she gasps. “Where’s my sister?”

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Miranda Wagner has just pulled the turkey out of the oven when she hears a knock at the door. Her husband, Cory Sunshine, is busy taking care of Krymzen and Samara’s two younger brothers. She wipes her hands and opens the door to her six-year-old neighbour, Xavier.

“The girls are in the water!” he announces.

Miranda doesn’t understand. “They fell in a puddle?” she asks.

“They fell in the river,” replies Xavier, who saw it happen. “Samara is floating away!”

For a few seconds, she is frozen. Her little girl is in the river? She shakes her head, yells for Cory to stay with the boys and races out the door.

Samara prays as the current sweeps her along. Please God, let me live, she pleads silently. She has already lost her jacket and one pink rubber boot. Her parents will be so mad! To get into trouble, you have to stay alive, an inner voice tells her.

It’s colder than she ever thought possible. Even though she knows how to swim, she can’t. Her arms and legs won’t do what they’re supposed to.

She has been in the water for eight minutes. Even though she’s only nine years old, she knows she doesn’t have much time left.

Adam frantically looks for Samara and spots her in her red T-shirt and pink leggings about 500 metres downriver, the current carrying her along like a log. He and Rocky start running, but the distance might as well be five kilometres. Every time Adam tries to move onto the ice, he feels it cracking beneath him.

“I can’t move my arms or legs,” Samara cries.

An experienced outdoorsman who works in the oil fields, Adam realizes hypothermia is setting in. Soon she’ll be unconscious, and her body will shut down. He has only a few minutes to rescue her. He quickly closes the gap.

He throws Rocky’s leash out to Samara, but it isn’t long enough. He tries again, and suddenly the ice he and Rocky are on gives way. Rocky treads water while Adam is submerged up to his neck. When he tries to haul himself out, the underwater ice shelf supporting him breaks away.

Ten seconds, 20–the clock is ticking. Finally Rocky scrambles up a piece of ice that doesn’t break. Adam gives him a push and then hoists himself up, holding on to the dog’s neck for support. He stumbles to his feet and turns to look for Samara. He sees a dark head and a flash of red about 15 metres away.

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Adam and Rocky head back onto the ice. They get close to Samara, but again and again the ice gives way, forcing them to stop. Adam stands with Rocky at his side, helpless. In a flash, he knows what to do. It’s a decision hinging on the faith he has in his dog, a retriever who in the past has happily towed a floating Kelsey to shore as she lazily held on to his leash. Why not now?

“I’m going to cinch the leash around my dog and have him jump in the water downstream of you,” he yells to Samara. “Grab hold of him, his leash, his fur, whatever you can, and hang on.”

The dog is their only hope. “Rocky, go get the girl!”

Rocky leaps into the river and swiftly paddles against the current toward Samara. She watches as he approaches, his ears flat back against his head. She likes dogs, even big ones, so she’s not scared. But she can barely keep her eyes open as he nudges her with his nose.

When she doesn’t take the leash, he pushes her with his paw. He is calm and strong. She grabs the leash. She knows Rocky will take care of the rest.

“Use both hands,” Adam calls. Then, the command: “Rocky, come!”

Samara lets her eyes finally close as the dog pulls her back to shore. Adam lifts her out of the water and holds her close. She feels like ice.

“Hang on,” he says. “Please, hang on.”

When Adam’s mobile phone rings, he jumps. He’s surprised it’s working at all after the river dunkings. The 9-1-1 dispatcher is on the other end of the line. 
It’s 4:35, only 15 minutes since Adam was on the footbridge. The waterlogged trio settle down to wait–Adam and Rocky on either side of Samara, propping her up, trying to get her warm. “It’s okay,” Adam murmurs again and again.

Miranda rushes into the University of Alberta hospital, crying out for her daughters. First she finds a penitent, teary Krymzen in bed with a heating blanket. Then she goes to the trauma centre, where Samara is being warmed in a cocoon of covers. The doctors tell Miranda her daughter had no more than two minutes to live before Rocky towed her to safety.

“Mom, I nearly died,” Samara wails.

Miranda wants to laugh, scream and cry all at once. She wants to lecture them, ground them, never let them out of her sight. But right now, she hugs Samara tight.

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