Dynamic trio save woman from Kansas River
Things started off simply enough for Skylar Ross Thursday.
But by Thursday night, the Basehor-Linwood High School sophomore and others would pull a woman from the Kansas River.
Skylar left early from the Tonganoxie Invitational track meet because he was still recovering from a knee injury he sustained April 13 at the Perry-Lecompton Invitational. He had trouble putting weight on his knee so he went to his rural Linwood home to put some ice on it.
That evening, his father, Matt Ross, made plans to help Skylar’s grandmother at her house in De Soto. Skylar decided to join him.
The Rosses said they frequently make trips from their home to De Soto and it’s usually uneventful, but that would all change when they got closer to the city limits that night.
“When we got over the (Wyandotte Street) bridge we both saw that there was a lady with a white T-shirt and blonde hair coming our way,” Matt said. “She was walking on the southbound lane so we scooted to the middle of the street to avoid her. You always have to wonder why someone is walking on the bridge. She must have had somewhere to go, but there is no sidewalk or walkway on the bridge.”
Skylar noticed something else.
“She looked real sad, and she looked like she was kind of depressed,” he said.
Just out of curiosity, the pair kept an eye on the woman through the truck’s mirrors.
“The next thing you know, we see her step over the railing and take another step,” Matt said. “We lost her from view, and there is only one way to go and that’s down.”
He and Skylar were shocked.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Skylar said. “You just never expect to see someone walk off a bridge.”
Matt stepped on the brakes and turned the car around. He said she was far enough on the bridge when she stepped off that she most likely fell into the water and not on to the bank or the railroad tracks that are on the south side of the Kansas River. They saw the woman step off the west side of the bridge so they figured the current would have brought her to the east side by the time they arrived where they last saw her.
Matt said they looked down at the 60-foot drop to the surface of the water and immediately spotted her in the river. He said she was floating on her back almost as if she was relaxing. At that point, they couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead.
They called 911 and told the dispatchers what they had just seen and included the direction the woman was heading down the river.
Five minutes later, around 7:20 p.m., a group of emergency personnel arrived at the bridge. Matt and Skylar told them what they saw and which direction the woman was going.
Because they witnessed what happened they felt very involved with the woman and they didn’t just want to be spectators.
The Rosses got back in their truck and started heading east toward Kill Creek down a service road that ran along the railroad tracks. Their hope was to get in front of the woman and possibly attempt a rescue at the creek.
Another group of emergency responders were already making their way toward the creek and the river.
By the time Skylar and Matt reached the creek, Todd Maxton with Johnson County’s Northwest Consolidated Fire District was on the scene.
In his 17-years with the fire department, Maxton had never attempted a river rescue. He said he had training in water rescues and more recently, he trained in how to properly throw and use ropes in a water rescue.
They saw the 60-year-old Olathe woman heading in their direction.
Matt and Skylar went to the riverbank and estimated she was about 30 yards out from the south shore near the deep part of the river.
“That was too far to go swimming for her,” Matt said.
They heard the woman asking for help, but Matt said it was very low, and she sounded very weak.
The pair headed back to the tracks and met up with Maxton.
The three of them grabbed some equipment – a portable radio, rope and life vests – and started running east along the river.
Maxton put on a life vest and Matt put on a spare. Matt said he would need it if he had to assist Maxton in the water.
They continued east while maintaining a visual on the woman. Maxton said she was traveling at a pace that was slower than a jog so the three could run to get in front of her to attempt a rescue.
“There were times when she was face down in the water,” Maxton said. “That’s when I made the determination that, because she didn’t have any kind of life vest on, we were going to need to act soon.”
About a quarter-mile east of Kill Creek, Maxton made his first rescue attempt.
They climbed down the steep bank to get to the water.
Maxton got in the water and threw a rope to her. It fell five feet short.
Matt said it didn’t look like the woman had the strength to swim for the rope because she was in shock or because she might be in the early stages of hypothermia.
Maxton told the Rosses to keep moving and try to catch up with her at another part of the river while he collected his rope and got out of the water. Unfortunately, Maxton said his portable radio was submerged in the water and stopped working. The trio would have to act alone.
Matt and Skylar continued to follow the tracks east while keeping a visual on the woman.
Right where the river started to bend to the northeast, the pair ran into a fenced area where the city of Olathe has three collector wells fed by the Kansas River.
Two Johnson County Sheriff’s deputies were there and told the Rosses where they could find an opening in the fence.
The pair had lost sight of the woman when they reached the fence. To make up time, Skylar handed his father the rope he was carrying and ran ahead to see if he could catch up to the woman.
He came by the first collector well and called out for the woman. He heard no reply. He then headed northeast to the next well to see if he could find her.
That’s when he saw her close to shore. She had been snagged on some brush about eight feet from the shore.
He slid down the bank and found a tree branch that could reach her.
“She wasn’t really paying attention to me at all,” Skylar said. “I was trying to get her attention. I was trying to get her to look at me. She wasn’t really focusing on me. I kind of raised my voice and I said, ‘ma’am, what color is my shirt?’ This got her attention. She looked at me and said, ‘Red’. I said ‘good’ and I told her to grab the stick. She grabbed the stick with her right hand and then I told her to grab the stick with her left hand and then I pulled her up a little out of the water.”
He had her out of the water, up to her waist, when Maxton caught up. He jumped in the water, behind the woman.
Matt arrived and tossed the rope from the top of the bank down to Skylar and Maxton so they could secure the woman while he went to go find help.
Skylar climbed up the embankment that lead to shore and secured the rope.
Matt didn’t have any luck finding help.
Because Matt was a little stronger and Skylar was faster and had more endurance, the two swapped places. Matt went down to help Maxton while Skylar went to find help.
Skylar says he is a sprinter. His longest distance is 200 meters on a track. But that evening, despite his hurt knee, he was running cross country.
He ran down the dirt road from the well to the edge of the fenced in area. He jumped the fence and continued down the road about where Waverly Road should be north of 82nd Street.
He initially jumped on top of a train car hoping to find emergency workers, but he could only see flashing lights in the distance.
He then jumped down and continued the quarter-mile run from the river until he got to 82nd street.
Luckily, a car was passing by. He asked the driver for her cell phone and called 911 to try and relay their position as best he could. A fire truck was also passing by, and soon emergency responders began converging on their location.
While this was happening, Matt and Maxton were still helping the woman. A rescue boat arrived on scene, and one person from the boat came to assist the two men. Another emergency responder from land also arrived to help.
The four of them hoisted her back onto land and had her lie down. They put a life vest under her head and a coat over her to keep her warm.
“She wasn’t looking good,” Matt said. “Her skin was pretty milky white. It was obvious she was experiencing hypothermia and shock.”
He put his hands on her cheeks to help her warm up as they waited for more rescue crews to assist.
Rescue crews arrived to stabilize the woman and soon had her in an ambulance heading to Overland Park Regional Medical Center to treat her for injuries and to assess her mental stability after the suicide attempt.
Exhausted, the Rosses, Maxton and another firefighter, Brad King, with the fire district, walked back along the tracks to the trucks they had left behind at Kill Creek.
Looking back on the night, Matt said a lot of things were working in their favor for the rescue.
Firstly, the sun was still out when she walked off the bridge.
“If she had attempted this one hour later, it would have been in the dark, and we would have very easily lost sight of her in the water,” Matt said. “If it wasn’t for Skylar keeping track of her, it wouldn’t have worked out like it did for her.”
Secondly, Matt and Skylar are both Eagle Scouts.
Skylar said it was just the little things that he learned during scouts that helped him save the woman.
“Although I don’t remember doing anything like this,” he joked.
Matt said scouting taught them not to jump in the water to save the woman, but attempt to reach her with something from the shore. Scouting also taught them the proper way to tie a rope around a person to hoist them out of the water.
Skylar’s mother, Maureen Ross, believes there were other forces at work.
“God puts us where we are supposed to be, and (Skylar) was supposed to be on that bridge that night,” she said.
Maxton said what Matt and Skylar did was extraordinary.
“I don’t expect this out of any citizen,” Maxton said. “Because I got separated from my team, both Skylar and Matt became part of the rescue effort. We were all rescuers in this situation.”
Maxton said even with all of the risks involved, the Rosses proceeded cautiously, avoiding becoming victims themselves.
Although they don’t know the woman, Matt and Skylar continue to think about her and hope she gets the treatment she needs.
“I hope she recovers and finds some meaning in her life to continue on with life,” Matt said.