A Hillsboro family jumps in to save eight children

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - 'I was amazed,' Gaston Fire chief Roger Mesenbrink told members of the Gibson family who made a dramatic rescue at Hagg Lake Saturday. Pictured here are (left to right) Lura Kirby, Evan Gibson, Lorne MacLean and April MacLean.Margaret Bell was in her Gaston home Saturday evening when her daughter received a distressing news alert on her phone.

Bell can’t recall the exact message but it involved a near drowning of multiple family members at Hagg Lake.

Since Bell and her daughter had, just a few hours earlier, left a family gathering at the nearby reservoir, her heart jumped.

She called one of her brothers, Evan Gibson, who was safe at home in Hillsboro. But he and other family members had, indeed, been involved in the incident — not as near victims, but as rescuers.

“To find out that our family was not only safe, but able to help others, that was amazing,” said Bell.

When Lois and Grant Gibson were raising their large family in Hillsboro back in the 1960s, they made sure their eight girls and two boys knew how to swim and understood the perils of the lakes they visited on frequent camping trips.

“We all had a healthy respect for the water,” said Bell, who is the city recorder in Gaston.

She said her parents also instilled a sense of helping others.

So, it’s no surprise that when several of her siblings and other family members sensed trouble in the water on Saturday afternoon, they headed in without hesitation.

In one of the most dramatic water rescues in recent Oregon history, members of the Gibson family are being credited with saving the lives of eight children, ages 6 to 13, and, possibly, two adult women.

About 30 members of the extended Gibson family had gone to Hagg Lake Saturday for a day of grilling and water play in the sun. Eight of the 10 siblings, now with children and grandchildren of their own, made the trip, including Bell, Evan Gibson and April MacLean of Hillsboro, Michelle Rushing of Vancouver, Wash., and Lura Kirby of Ashland, Va.

They originally planned to set up at Boat Ramp C, but were worried about access for their dad, who is in a wheelchair (Lois Gibson passed away a year ago). So, they made an impromptu venue change, to the Sain Creek Picnic Area, a popular spot on the west side of the 1,100-acre man-made lake, which serves as a regional water supply and recreation area.

By late afternoon, about a third of the family, including Bell, had headed home. The MacLeans’ son, Eric, figured it was time to join them. As the Marine headed up from the shore to say his goodbyes, he heard a cry of “help” from the lake and saw a woman waving her arms in the water.

The 27-year-old didn’t hesitate. He rushed back toward the water.

Michelle saw her nephew fly past and looked up to view a frightful image. Four small heads bobbed in the water and then disappeared below the surface.

“They’re drowning!” she yelled. “They’re drowning.”

In an instant she was in the water, along with her brother, Evan, who’d also seen the children struggling from a different spot in the picnic area and joined Eric in a sprint to the lake.

Her sister April, and April’s husband, Lorne MacLean, were close behind.

Because the parents of the children rescued chose not to release their names or talk to the media, there are some holes in the dramatic story.

The Gibsons said it appeared that children from several families, with parents nearby, had been playing in the shallow water for some time.

The children weren’t wearing life jackets, but Evan Gibson stressed that he did not view the adults as negligent, because the water was shallow.

What they didn’t realize is that several yards from shore, the incoming Sain Creek cuts a deep channel, with a steep, muddy slope. “You can go from ankle-deep in water to over-your-head in about one foot,” said Gaston Fire Chief Roger Mesenbrink, whose crews have responded to several mishaps at that location over the years.

And that, apparently, is exactly what happened to the children on Saturday.

Racing from the shore

Evan Gibson figures that one or more of the children wandered out from shore and slipped off that muddy ledge. Others, who rushed to help, found themselves under water.

By the time he and Eric came racing from shore, two women from the other group were also in the water, but they had gone into the channel and were struggling themselves.

After pushing the women back to shallow water, the two men turned their attention to the children. They’re not clear who grabbed how many kids and in what order they got them to the bank, but one of the most harrowing moments came when Michelle, while carrying an unconscious girl in her arms, felt another small human form at her feet.

“I knew there was another one down there,” she said. “I worried about pushing her over the ledge.”

So she positioned herself between the channel and the shore and somehow managed to get the child up to where she and the other girl could be handed to the human chain that the Gibson family had formed, ending on the shore, where Lura Kirby waited — a frantic, one-woman resuscitation unit.

“Our church has done CPR classes,” Kirby said on Sunday. “But yesterday it all went out of my mind.”

Still, her instincts proved right. She took the first limp body, a young, mud-covered girl lying face up, and rocked her to her side, gently, but forcefully patting her back.The lifeless body sputtered and the eyelids fluttered. The girl was breathing.

Kirby did the same to a second girl, with the same result.

“I had a sense of joy ... a sense of elation,” she said. “We weren’t too late.”

Despite the glimmer of hope on shore, the scene in the murky water was still terrifying.

“I kept asking, ‘Are there more? Are there more?’” Rushing said.

Finally, a young man who was with the group counted the children and said they were all there.

Fire chief amazed

At some point in the chaos, Evan’s wife, Tina, called 911. Mesenbrink, as is often the case around Gaston, was first on the scene.

“The 911 call didn’t sound good: lots of kids, possible drowning,” he said at a Sunday press briefing at the fire station.

What he found when he arrived amazed him: all the children and the adults had been pulled from the water and were standing or sitting, wrapped in towels, fully conscious.

For Bell, that’s the end of the story. “My family is very private,” she said. “They are just grateful that they could be of assistance.”

Mesenbrink, however, insisted on putting their actions in context.

“I’ve been doing this more than 40 years and never had I seen anything like this,” he told reporters, as he stood before the family. “A trained team would have performed no better in this circumstance. You can call it luck. I call it hard work and paying attention.”

What, the chief was asked, would he call the family members who came to the rescue?

“Heroes,” he said immediately. “It takes a certain kind of person to do that.”