8 honored for harrowing rescue of boys from rain-swollen Mississippi River
By TAD VEZNER | Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. | Published: August 28, 2018
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — When the crew of ironworkers working on St. Paul’s Robert Street railroad lift bridge saw a screaming 10-year-old boy drift down the Mississippi River below them, they knew they were going to have to steal a boat.
The river was high, the current more like a torrent. And there was a second boy clinging to one of the bridge’s central support pillars, his fingers slipping.
“I dug my fingers into the cracks of that pillar,” said Kirdus Zelalem, 14, of Apple Valley. “Held on for as long as I could.”
A pair of the ironworkers rushed to the shore and found a small 14-foot boat with an old pull-cord engine. They pulled what seemed like countless times. Couldn’t get it started.
“We tried to find a boat that started, but all of ’em were locked up,” said Kyle Dubois, one of the ironworkers.
But there was an oar in the boat; another beat-up one was on the shore. So they started rowing. …
As the boy’s fingers slipped away from the pillar, sending him into the rushing waters, screaming.
“Given the high waters and hazardous conditions, the crew’s heroic actions were remarkable,” U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Matt MacKillop said during a Monday ceremony, two months after the June 21 rescue. Heavy upriver rains had caused the Mississippi to swell, inching perilously close to flood levels.
Meanwhile, the 10-year-old boy — hundreds of feet down the river by now — had flipped onto his back.
“Me trying to swim against the current won’t do nothing,” Sammy Solomon, of St. Paul, remembered thinking. “I decided to let the current take me, and hope.”
A HIKE TO RASPBERRY ISLAND
Just seconds earlier, Kirdus and Sammy had been bored. The two cousins had come downtown to see Kirdus’ father, who owned and ran Skyway Coffee in the U.S. Bank building.
There wasn’t much to do in the shop. So they decided to hike over to Raspberry Island and play on the steps that descend into the river.
Kirdus got as far as the third step, the water reaching his thighs. Sammy — a foot shorter — touched the step beside his cousin. For maybe a second.
Before he began drifting away.
Kirdus grabbed for his cousin — but just that fast, the boy was out of reach. So he jumped in after him, caught him … and the two were drifting together.
‘I THOUGHT I COULD GET HIM’
A thousand feet downstream, some river barge workers heard a boy crying. While Kirdus had grabbed hold of the bridge pillar upstream, his cousin had spun out of his arms.
“I thought I could get him. I thought I could…,” Kirdus said.
After a time on his back, Sammy saw a log, partially wedged beneath a 200-foot barge near the river’s west bank. So he flipped over and swam with all his strength — before getting both arms around it.
The edge of that barge dipped at an angle below the water. There was a barge parked behind that, and another behind that: a 600-foot stretch of cold, murky, torrential water. That was where the current wanted to take Sammy.
A crew from Upper River Services heard the boy yelling, and saw him — on the verge of being dragged under. Within seconds, they hopped onto the nearest towing vessel, the Pike. One of them threw Sammy a life ring — then despaired when they saw how fast the current took it away.
“Don’t grab it!” they yelled at the boy.
“Had he tried to grab it and slipped, there was nothing we could’ve done. I still get goosebumps,” said Lee Nelson, president of Upper River Services, who was piloting the vessel. “There’s no way he would’ve survived.”
Three of Nelson’s employees were crowding the bow of the Pike as it maneuvered slowly toward the boy. Mike Sandidge — the one with the longest reach — thrust his hand out.
“Ben was holding onto my belt, and Randy was holding onto Ben. It must have looked like a circus,” Sandidge said, referring to co-workers Ben Brooks and Randy Kohl.
They heard the child in the water doing three things: praying, apologizing, and promising never to do “it” again. Slowly, he reached back.
Sandidge got ahold of Sammy’s wrist, and hauled, hoping his belt held.
“I felt cold. Very, very cold,” Sammy said of when his butt finally touched down on the bow. One of the crewmen wrapped him in a jacket.
But upriver, Sammy’s cousin was still adrift.
ROWING AS FAST AS THEY COULD
The ironworkers, Dubois and his teammate, Sid Rieck, were rowing as fast as they could to reach Kirdus, after the current had finally torn him from the pillar.
They had help from above. The bridge tender threw a life ring down — and Kirdus caught it.
From there, it was a matter of rowing hard and fast enough. Which somehow they did, reaching Kirdus and trying to stop the small boat from rocking long enough to haul the boy in.
“He was worried about his dad and his cousin. Mostly his cousin,” Rieck said of his conversation with Kirdus while rowing back to shore.
Paramedics checked out both boys. They were grounded for “a while,” Sammy said.
Kirdus’ father said his son was quiet for a few days after, thinking about what could have happened. The older boy had known Sammy since he was 5: the cousin he found annoying as a toddler was now one of his best friends.
On Monday, both attended the ceremony for eight men. The four-man crew of the Pike, along with the four Union Pacific Railroad ironworkers: Dubois and Rieck, along with the bridge tender, Adam Potter, and their foreman, Scott Kerling.
All received a certificate of merit from the Coast Guard, along with recognition from the St. Paul Fire Department and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“I gave them a round of applause,” Sammy said. “They deserve it.”