Father and son race to save woman from Kansas River
by Joe Bollig
email@example.com DE SOTO — It was an unusual sight — a woman walking across the Wyandotte Street Bridge — that caused Matt Ross and his son Skylar to look back in the truck’s rearview mirrors as they drove past.
As they watched, the woman stopped, took a step over the first guardrail, then the second, and disappeared. She didn’t hesitate at all.
They turned and looked at each other. “Did she just jump?” said Matt. Skylar, very surprised, just nodded his head.
Matt slowed, whipped the truck around, gunned the engine, and drove back to the place where they thought the woman had been. If she had fallen to the railroad tracks 70 feet below, she was in big trouble.
And if she was in the Kansas River… well, that was big trouble, too.
A day like any other
The Rosses belong to Sacred Heart Parish in Tonganoxie, but live near Linwood, in southern Leavenworth County. On April 15, Matt had gotten off work early and checked on his mother, who lives in De Soto.
When he got home, his younger son, Skylar, was icing his left knee. Skylar had hurt himself at a track meet earlier in the day. Matt asked if he’d like to help clean out a culvert at his grandmother’s house, and Skylar agreed.
It took a while to change clothes and gather tools, so by the time they got to the Wyandotte Street Bridge over the Kansas River, it was already about 7:10 p.m.
It’s not unheard of to see pedestrians on the bridge, but it was definitely rare, for two reasons. First, there’s no sidewalk — just a short space between a white line and the first rail. Second, north of the bridge is countryside — nothing to walk to.
The pedestrian they saw that day was a woman in her 50s or 60s, and she was walking north as they drove south into town.
“She had an expression on her face,” said Matt. “I would have to describe it as hurt, maybe bewildered.”
Stunned as they were by her jump, they were out of the truck and scrambling toward the guardrails within seconds.
The men looked first over one side, then the other. There she was spotted, floating on her back, feet-first and head up, going east with the current.
“Can you swim?” Matt hollered. “No,” she said faintly.
Matt called 911, but the operator kept asking for an address.
“We’re on the bridge, the only bridge in town,” he told the person, and finally gave an intersection on the south end of town. Almost immediately, they heard the sirens of rescue and law enforcement.
Run for a life
It only took about three minutes for the first responders to reach the scene, where Matt and Skylar filled them in on what had happened.
Matt also told them where they needed to go. Matt grew up in De Soto and spent many a boyhood day along the river.
“I said the best way to get to the river was to go down past the ballparks, along the grain elevator, and along the railroad tracks to Kill Creek,” said Matt.
While members of the Northwest Consolidated Fire District and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department began to arrive and spread out over a distance of three miles along the river, Matt threw his truck in reverse, backed his way off the bridge, and headed for the river he knew so well.
Downstream, the Lenexa Fire Department put a boat in the water. In Lawrence, Lifestar Air Ambulance was alerted.
“The river has a reputation,” said Matt. “You can get caught in barbed wire, or get your legs caught in a snag. The current will just force you down. The bottom of the river has pits where old, dead trees settle and create eddies, currents and undertows that will suck you down. And the water [this time of year] is cold.”
Matt and Skylar first went to the confluence of the Kansas River and Kill Creek. There, they met up with two rescue personnel — one of them was Capt. Todd Maxton, a 17-year veteran with the Consolidated Fire District.
The woman was far out into the river. They called to her, but she sounded weak. She was too far to reach, so she floated on. Skylar scrambled over the railroad bridge and headed east, followed by Matt and Maxton.
The current was only moving two or three miles an hour, so the Rosses tried to keep up on foot, and looked for a place to get to the river. Often, they lost sight of her because of trees.
The riverbank was steep in most spots. And the would-be rescuers had to scramble around trees, through tall grass and brushy, thorny brambles — not to mention the double railroad tracks, flatcars, and fences around Olathe water well stations.
As they followed her along the riverbank, Matt and Skylar called out to the woman, trying to encourage her to dog paddle. The woman didn’t try to swim, but she wasn’t struggling either. Finally, they found an opening to the river. Maxton put on a life jacket, as did Matt.
“The terrain was very difficult, because that stretch of the river has a steep embankment with heavy timber,” said Maxton.
“Our goal was to run ahead and find a good access point,” he continued. “The first attempt was probably a little over a quarter of a mile. I got in the water’s edge and threw the rope, maybe five feet short of her reach.”
After this failed attempt, the three men kept working their way through the trees and brush. By now they were growing winded from scrambling through all the trees and brush and up and down the steep banks.
Finally, they reached a point where the tracks went east and the river curved north. But they’d also come up against a fence around a water well station. Two Johnson County deputies arrived and told them about an opening. Skylar took off first.
One last grasp
Although Matt wasn’t far behind, his track team son had the edge. For a few tense moments, Matt was left shouting at the top of his lungs, looking for the woman, Skylar, or preferably both.
Finally, he found them. The woman had gotten caught on a snag near the steep bank, and Skylar had scrambled down and was holding out a branch to the woman.
Both Matt and Skylar are Eagle Scouts. Skylar learned basic water rescue techniques in the now-defunct Troop 62 of Linwood, although he is now a member of Troop 169 in Basehor.
According to their Scout training, both knew they should not enter the water to attempt a rescue, but should instead throw a rope to the victim or hold out a pole or stick for them to grasp.
But the woman appeared to be suffering from hypothermia and wasn’t paying any attention to Skylar.
“Look at me,” Skylar instructed her. “Ma’am, look at me. What color is my shirt? What color?”
The woman looked up.
“Red,” she answered weakly.
“Good. Red. Grab the stick with your left hand,” Skylar said, firmly.
And with simple instructions like that, Skylar helped the woman work her way out of the snag, and pulled her closer to the bank. He only entered the water himself when she was close enough to the bank to stand and the water was waist-deep.
By then it was clear that her skin was chalk white — she was hypothermic.
Matt and Maxton, who had caught up with Skylar by now, threw a rope down to him. Matt told Skylar to tie a bowline knot — also known to Scouts as a rescue knot. When he was finished, Matt and Maxton traded places with Skylar and told him to get help. They couldn’t get her out of the river by themselves.
Skylar scrambled up the bank, using stumps and saplings for handholds. He ran about 100 yards, where came to a fence. He yelled and whistled, jumped on a flatcar, and took off his shirt and waved it at emergency vehicles a quarter mile away, but they didn’t see him.
So Skylar climbed the fence and jogged through a plowed field until he came to a road.
At the sight of an approaching car, Skylar prayed only that it would stop. His prayers were more than answered. Not only did the car stop, but the car was driven by a friend, Megan Bedford. And she had a cell phone.
Megan had taken this back route to avoid the emergency vehicles blocking the main roads. She promptly loaned Skylar her cell phone and he made the call.
Soon, help arrived.
Normally, fire and rescue people do not want civilians to get involved. They don’t have the training and might even get hurt, worsening the situation.
On April 15, however, Maxton was glad to have the Ross family on the team.
“Without their help, I’m not exactly sure we would have had a positive outcome,” said Maxton. “It was a unique situation. I was separated from my team. [Matt and Skylar] did take some risks, but we were all on the same page, and things worked out.”
Looking back, Matt sees a lot to thank God for.
Thank God, he visited his mother that day. Thank God, Skylar came home early. Thank God, they were on the bridge when it happened, and happened to look back. Thank God, they had Scout training. Thank God, they had enough daylight.
And finally, thank God for that last snag.
The Rosses have prayed for the woman pulled from the river.
“We have God’s promise,” said Matt. “Good things happen to us, and sometimes bad things, but we still have God’s promise of salvation.”
Skylar, who belongs to a youth group in town, finds his faith helps make sense of her actions — and his.
“Never stop believing, and always have trust in Him,” said Skylar. “Things may turn out terribly, but you know that something good will come out of everything.
“Her jumping off the bridge was a terrible thing.
“But God put us there, and gave us the strength and willpower to help her.”