Kent State student saves drowning girl from Cuyahoga River

Photo credit: Valerie Brown

Photo credit: Valerie Brown

Valerie Brown

The Cuyahoga River was higher than usual after weeks of heavy rain. But on May 22, the weather was warm and sunny, and several people wandered into Heritage Park, just below the Main Street bridge.

John “Eric” Johnston, a senior music education major at Kent State, joined several friends at the park that Sunday afternoon to enjoy the summer weather. He sat on the stone embankment at the river’s edge and chatted.

Not far away, Todd Fisher, 44, of Kent, and his two children, Harrison, 12, and Madelyn, 8, walked along the river in an attempt to alleviate Madelyn’s stomachache following their Sunday brunch.

Fisher photographed Harrison in front of the bridge archway while Madelyn wandered farther away, despite her father’s instructions to stay close by.

Madelyn, who said she has “never been scared of the water,” ventured near the bottom of the embankment and slipped on a wet patch, sliding feet first into the river. The water quickly carried her past the observation point and out in front of the Kent Dam.

Fisher said he heard someone shout, “Girl in the water!” and knew it was Madelyn. He immediately jumped in after her.

“At that point I didn’t even know where she was,” Fisher said. “I just decided I’ve got to get in the water. Got to get in the water.’“

Fisher finally spotted Madelyn about 50 yards away.

He said he hoped when she reached the wider part of the river, the current would slow and he could catch up. He could see Madelyn’s head bobbing up ahead as she struggled to stay above water.

“When it kept dunking me, I paddled up,” Madelyn said. “I didn’t fight the river.”

Fisher said he was terrified, not only for Madelyn’s life but also his own. The current was strong and pulled him under more than once.

“I thought she was a goner,” Fisher said.

Madelyn, whose father said she is a strong swimmer, was thinking the same thing.

“I thought I was going to (die),” Madelyn said. “There was a rock. I tried to grab it, but I couldn’t.”

Fortunately, Johnston and his friends had seen her fall.

Johnston said instinct immediately took over. He took the steps up to the trail, which runs along the wooded riverbank. He said he walks the trails often and knew exactly where to go.

“I just thought I could get ahead of her and the current,” said Johnston. His friend called 911.

On the trail just behind Silk Mill Apartments, Johnston climbed into the water. He had managed to get ahead of Madelyn and swam upstream towards her, telling her to come to him.

“She stayed really calm,” Johnston said. “That probably helped a lot.”

Johnston said he was able to grab her and pull her toward the shore where emergency responders were waiting. He handed Madelyn over to paramedics and then helped Fisher, who was close behind, out of the river.

After reaching safety, evidence of Madelyn’s fear finally surfaced.

“I felt scared,” Madelyn said. “Then, I started crying.”

“(Johnston) stayed calm under extraordinary circumstances,” said Captain John Trasko of the Kent Fire Department. “He was able to think through what he needed to do and did it.”

Trasko said the Cuyahoga River is usually three feet deep, but rose to eight feet the day of Madelyn’s fall.

Both Madelyn and her father had cuts and bruises. Fisher said he was much worse off than his daughter, but their injuries were still minor. Paramedics treated both in the lot behind the apartments before the family returned to their home.

The entire incident happened in only a few minutes.

“It was surreal,” Johnston said.

Fisher was able to thank Johnston at the river, but it wasn’t until more than a week later that he was really able show him his appreciation. The fire department invited Johnston and the Fisher family to a special dinner to honor what Johnston had done.

“This guy rescued us, and I didn’t even know his name,” Fisher said.

“We bought him flowers and a gift certificate, but what price do you put on someone saving your daughter?” said Jennifer Fisher, Madelyn’s mother.

Both Fisher and the fire department are submitting separate nominations for Johnston for the 2012 Real Hero Award sponsored by the American Red Cross of Summit and Portage Counties. The award, given annually in March, honors “ordinary people doing extraordinary things in times of emergency,” according to the Red Cross website. The fire department will also nominate Johnston for a State Marshal’s Office award for civilian heroes in May 2012.

“He was there at the right time and (he was) quick-thinking,” Fisher said. “There is no way I can ever repay him. I hope he knows how grateful we are.”

Johnston said all the attention he has received surprises him. He said he hopes it encourages people to be more aware of their surroundings and what is happening around them.

“Watch out for that other guy,” he said. “Don’t stop and think about helping someone if they need help. Just go and do.”

Contact Valerie Brown at [email protected].