Three recreational inner-tubers – including a 10-year-old boy – who fell into the Nooksack River were saved in a multi-agency rescue operation Monday night west of Everson.
All three people are safe, after they were plucked from the river by a Navy helicopter crew and treated by firefighters for mild hypothermia at ambulances parked in a field near north of Nolte and Van Dyk roads. Firefighters found them clinging to tree branches in the fast-moving river, which is fed by summer glacial melt.
“We were able to work life jackets out to them using throw bags,” said Chief Mel Blankers of Whatcom County Fire District 1, a mostly volunteer department serving Everson and Nooksack.
“Our boats were still a ways out, and the Navy said they could be there in under a half-hour,” Blankers said. “I’ve really got to tip my hat to those guys. It was impressive.”
Blankers said a corpsman was lowered on a cable as the helicopter, a Medevac variant of the Blackhawk, hovered about 100 feet in the air and hoisted the three people in less than 10 minutes. At least one person streamed the rescue on Facebook Live.
A rescue crew at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station went airborne at 7:45 p.m. and plucked the first victim out of the water at 8:05 p.m., said said Michael Welding, spokesman at NAS Whidbey. He said an “after-action report” documents the rescue, but no crew members were available to be interviewed Tuesday morning.
“The helicopter recovered the first person at 5 (minutes) after 8 (p.m.); the second at 8 after; and at 12 after. That went pretty fast,” Welding said, adding it was the crew’s second rescue Monday and the fourth in three days.
Blankers said one of the inner-tubers called 911 about 6:30 p.m. Monday to report two groups of tubers, five people in all, were in distress on the Nooksack River about a mile west of the Everson Road bridge. It’s an area known for snags and fast eddies, just downstream from the start of the canoe portion of the annual Ski to Sea race.
Names and ages of the victims were not disclosed because of medical privacy rules. But Blankers said there were four adults in their 20s and 30s and one 10-year-old boy. He wasn’t sure of their home towns.
Floating on inner tubes is popular in the warmer summer months.
Their plight began as a group of three tubers was in distress and a second group stopped to help. All five went into the river, but two were able to get themselves onto a sandbar, Blankers said.
“We had a hard time finding access” to the river, Blankers said. The banks in that area are wooded and covered in a thick tangle of blackberries, surrounded by farmland on both the north and south banks.
Several agencies worked together, including firefighters from District 1 and Bellingham; Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies and volunteer search and rescue personnel, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s rescue team, Blankers said.
Some 40 personnel staged rescue vehicles and ambulances in a field, Blankers said. He said sheriff’s deputies were launching their boat from Ferndale when the Navy crew was summoned.
Blankers said the three patients were examined in heated ambulances but that no one required further treatment.