Location: Golden, Colorado
Date: June 11, 1991
Ruth Martinez and her daughters, ten-year-old Camellia and six-year-old Anna, often went on family outings together. They liked to take time out from work, homework, and chores as often as possible to go on special family trips to all different place. They loved to play and relax with each other on a lazy afternoon. It was on one such afternoon that they discovered how quickly safe surroundings can turn dangerous, how a dreamy day can suddenly become a nightmare.
June 11, 1991 was a sunny, pleasant, ideal day for the family to enjoy the scenery of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Ruth took Camellia, Anna, and Anna's young friend to the peaceful shores of Clear Creek in Golden, Colorado, for a day of play. And that is exactly how the trip began.
The creek seemed calm and beautiful; not a ripple spoiled its clean, clear surface. But there was a steady current. Surrounded by the majestic mountains, the spot Ruth had chosen for the outing was quiet, private, and pretty, even though there was a popular campsite nearby.
Sitting along the shore, Ruth watched as Camellia, Anna, and her friend skimmed rocks across the water, counting the skips they made with each toss. Feeling the water tentatively, Anna discovered it was ice cold--certainly not the kind of water to go swimming in today, but not too bad for just splashing along the shore.
Ruth sat back to read a good book, keeping an eye on the children and telling them not to go too far into the water. The peals of laughter and sound of splashing assured Ruth that they were having fun.
Camellia left Anna and her friend to go play on their own, a little farther away. As she walked along the shore, she became more curious--and more courageous--and decided to go deeper into the creek. Slowly, she waded through the icy chill, water lapping at her ankles, then her knees, and then her thighs.
As Camellia walked, she realized that the creek was not quite as shallow as it appeared. She also noticed that there was a strong pull under the water, forcing her legs to shift every time she tried to lift them. Continuing for another step or two, she was suddenly plunged into very deep water, the freezing cold wetness soaking her clothes, and, soon, her face. She clung to a nearby rock, but found it hard to hang on. The current seemed to want to drag her away, drag her down.
Ruth, who was keeping an eye on Anna and her friend, saw Camellia a short distance out in the creek. She called for her to come back into the shore--today was no day for swimming. At first, it was hard for Ruth to tell what was happening to Camellia. She didn't look as if she was too far out; perhaps she was just fooling around. Calling out again to quit kidding and return to the banks, Ruth looked closer. Camellia looked like she was struggling to hold onto the rock. Then she was gone!
Camellia had gone under the water for only a moment, but she was already beginning to lose her battle with the strong current. Ruth sprang into action, seeing that Camellia was in very serious danger. Jumping into the frigid waters, Ruth swam hard to reach her before she went under again. She reached the rock and tried desperately to free Camellia and take her back to shore. But the creek was far stronger than her.
"The water felt like a vacuum sucking my feet, and I just lost it," Ruth remembered. Neither she nor Camellia could keep their grip on the rock, their last chance at safety. Along the shore, Anna and her friend screamed hysterically, fearing they would drown in the swiftly moving water.
Ruth and Camellia were swept away, pried loose from the rock and down the creek, swirling and bobbing in the rapid currents of Clear Creek. Ruth lost hold of Camellia, was pulled under briefly, then managed to get out and run along the bank. She met a man riding a bike, and he called 911 from a campground. As it happened, the police headquarters were located right along the banks of Clear Creek. Detectives Stan Ross and Glenn Moore of the Golden Police Department heard the call and rushed out to respond.
They were doubtful that anyone could survive a fall in the creek because of the condition of the water at that time of year. In the spring, melting snow runs off the mountains, and by summer, the creeks and rivers become full and forceful. The officers feared that, even if they found Camellia, they would not be rescuing her alive but pulling a body out of the water.
As they approached the water, the officers admitted to each other that they were not very good swimmers. With a nervous laugh, they promised they would save each other if the "going got rough"--which was fully expected. What they didn't expect was to find Camellia alive or to have to wrestle her from the violent clutches of the rain-swollen creek.
Ruth watched helplessly, painfully, as Camellia continued to be carried farther and farther away by the swirling waters.
Back at the police headquarters, Commander Bill Kilpatrick also heard the radio dispatch for the emergency at Clear Creek. Being very familiar with the area and that particular creek, he knew that time could not be wasted. If the call had come in thirty or forty-five seconds later, the rescue team never would have had a chance of even seeing Camellia. They would have been too late.
From the banks, the officers spotted Camellia, moving so swiftly now that it was hard to keep her in sight. Without hesitation--without even thinking--they leaped into the cold creek to rescue her. Thinking they would swim out and grab her, they were taken by complete surprise when they lost control themselves. Once they were in the water, the creek had a mind of its own, pulling and tearing at them as if they were rag dolls.
Officer Ross felt as if someone had "grabbed his legs and pulled" him underwater. He couldn't fight it. He, too, began the quick, frightening ride along the current, tossed about like a leaf in high wind. If he was this scared, he could only imagine what Camellia must be feeling. Realizing that he was in serious danger himself, he knew he had to save himself before he could be any help in saving Camellia. Finally, catching his balance and keeping afloat, he found the strength to assist in the rescue.
Officer Moore had been luckier in fighting the current and was able to reach Camellia. But the current continued to pull mightily, and he was having difficulty keeping her head above water. Each time he succeeding in lifting her up, his own head submerged in the icy water.
Officer Ross got his bearings and, spotting Officer Moore and Camellia, struggled to their side. Together, the officers battled the raging currents to drag Camellia, ever so slowly, to shore. Once they did, there was no time for relief or recovery for the officers, however. When Camellia was dragged out, they discovered she was unconscious. She did not cough, she didn't even move. The officers feared the worst, but they continued to pull her up onto the bank, for closer inspection.
By this time, the officers realized that Camellia was not breathing; nor did she have a pulse. Trying to empty her lungs of water, they discovered that the bank was very steep and bumpy. They needed to get her to a firm, flat spot to began CPR.
Moving the heavy, waterlogged Camellia up the steep slope was almost impossible. The officers were completely exhausted from their own struggles with the creek. Slipping and falling, they were beginning to think they could never make it when, out of nowhere, Commander Kilpatrick arrived on the scene. Using all his considerable strength, he pushed all three people up the hill to safe and level ground.
Although Camellia had been submerged underwater for so long, the officers felt she might just have a chance. This was because the water was so cold. Although her heart had stopped and she was not breathing, the low body temperature might actually protect her from serious damage.
At the campground near Clear Creek, Ruth, Anna, and her friend waited anxiously for some news of Camellia. When an ambulance came screaming up, lights flashing, Ruth flagged down the paramedics and pleaded with them to take her along with them. Climbing into the back, Ruth, Anna, and her friend raced along in the ambulance to find Camellia.
The officers and Camellia were at the top of the embankment. Physically and emotionally drained, they would not give up on saving her, a child who reminded Officer Ross of his own daughter. It was a miracle that they had even found her. They would not let her die.
Commander Kilpatrick flagged down the arriving rescue squad, who appeared on the scene just in time. They were like a relay team, ready to take over just as the exhausted officers reached the final limits of their energy. CPR was continued on Camellia by the newly arrived rescuers.
Standing back from the drama, the officers looked at each other in a kind of daze. Now that the first danger had been resolved, Camellia's life and future were still at stake. How long had she been in the water? How long had she gone without oxygen? And how would this affect her brain?
When Foothills Ambulance paramedic Dana Hollingsworth arrived on the scene, Camellia still had no pulse and was not breathing. He had seen other drowning victims, caught in the water for just as long as her, who had not survived. He did not know what to expect for the deathly still Camellia, but he was going to do everything in his power to try to save her.
Getting out of the ambulance, Ruth, Anna, and her friend remained by the road a good distance from Camellia and the frantic rescue attempts. Ruth was terrified, and watching Camellia lie motionless would only make it worse for her and the workers. Unable to do anything else, she clung to the children, looking out at the mountains, and prayed.
Finally, a sign of life! The paramedics were able to start Camellia's heart! She was then immediately rushed to Lutheran Medical Center nearby and examined by Emergency Room physician Dr. Carla Murphy.
Dr. Murphy noted that Camellia's body temperature was 83.6 whereas a normal temperature is 98.6. This was a good sign, because while the cold is slowing down the body functions, it also reduces the need for oxygen. But Dr. Murphy was still not hopeful--Camellia's breathing was very shallow and she was not responding at all. She was in a coma. Dr. Murphy expected her to stay that way until she died.
Ruth didn't understand the serious nature of Camellia's condition. Whether she could or would not believe Dr. Murphy, she never gave up hope that Camellia would fully recover. While leaning over her in the Emergency Room, Ruth saw a small drop of water--what she believed was a tear--trickle down her cheek. She felt a warm, close bond with her at that moment and never doubted that she would make it.
Camellia was transferred to Children's Hospital in Denver in a deep coma. For the next three days and nights, Ruth kept a constant vigil over her, waiting for a sign that she would regain consciousness. On the third day, she was rewarded.
While holding Camellia's hand, Ruth leaned closer and heard a whisper. It was Camellia trying to speak. She said, "God." "What?" Ruth asked gently. "God sent me back," was the quiet by firm reply. She had truly come back.
Everyone involved in this amazing rescue believes Camellia's recovery is a miracle. Looking at her today, it is not hard to believe.
Although she had to learn everything--even walk--all over again, Camellia is a normal eleven-year-old girl who likes to play with Anna and help Ruth. She is most grateful to her heroes--the three officers who rescued her. Since the incident, she no longer swims in creeks.
Officers Ross and Moore and Commander Kilpatrick were honored for heroism by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Golden Police Department and can be tremendously proud of a job well done.
But their greatest reward has been the appreciation of the Martinez family and the gratification they feel for their own efforts in giving young Camellia her life back. That is the true reward.