By Joan Jewett, USFWS
Federal Wildlife Officer Russell Haskett is a hero but he won’t call himself that. He is understated when describing how he waded into Idaho’s frigid Snake River around noon on December 1 and pulled two duck hunters, one of them nearly dead, to safety.
“It was a calculated risk,” the officer for the Southeast Idaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex said of his decision to go in after the men. “It was either [go in] or watch those two guys drown.”
(Federal Wildlife Officer Russell Haskett standing near the Snake River, Photo: USFWS)
The men, Michael Jones and Norman Davis, both of Pocatello, Idaho, were clinging to their capsized canoe in the middle of the Snake River near Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge when Haskett heard a sheriff’s radio report of the incident.
The Snake River is wide in that spot and has a current but no rapids. High winds were holding the men and the canoe in place, despite the current, and they’d been in the freezing water a half-hour despite their attempts to get to shore. Jones was unconscious. Davis couldn’t speak.
Haskett, the first law enforcement responder on the scene, weighed the risks of trying to save the men and stay alive himself. He knew the river in that area was a mix of rock shelves and deep holes, so he inched his way in until he was up to his neck and close enough to toss a stick with a rope tied to it. When he got the stick hooked on Jones’ body, he pulled the men and the canoe to where he could reach them. Grabbing a man in each arm, the burly Haskett, 45, pulled them to shore, about 75 yards away.
“I’ve pulled people out of the river before,” he said modestly, and been in other rescue situations where people had hypothermia. Haskett was a fish and game officer for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe in Idaho for 13 years before joining the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004.
Three hunting buddies of Jones and Davis waited anxiously on shore and as soon as Haskett brought in the victims, he and the others put Jones and Davis in dry clothes and laid down around them to transfer their body heat while they waited for help.
Jones, 42, started to go into cardiac arrest. He was taken by Life Flight to the Portneuf Medical Center, where the emergency room staff had prepared for his arrival. The helicopter team was performing CPR as they wheeled him in for treatment.
The center’s cardiac surgeon, Dr. Jacob DeLaRosa, performed a cardiopulmonary bypass, according to the local Idaho State Journal, in which he cut into the femoral artery and vein on Jones’ thigh and transferred his blood to a machine that warmed and oxygenated it before circulating it back into Jones’ frigid torso. Jones was literally warmed from the inside, out, the Journal reported.
Making a miraculous turnaround, Jones reportedly was conscious six hours later and asking for ice cream. He was released from the hospital about 10 days later. Haskett visited him twice in the hospital and even returned to the rescue site to find Jones’ eyeglasses. Davis, Jones’ hunting buddy, had been treated and released the day the men were rescued.
Dr. DeLaRosa, the cardiac surgeon, called Jones “a miracle man” and his survival “the miracle on the Snake.”
Everyone is calling Haskett a hero. But the father of three says he is just thankful that he and the hunters are all OK.
As for Jones, he told the Associated Press he won't give up duck hunting. But he plans to confine his efforts to dry land.
"You can't give up something you love,” he said, “at least I can't."
Joan Jewett is Chief of Public Affairs for the Pacific Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service