Prison inmates dove into frigid water to save three boys after their canoe capsized on Salmon Creek Wednesday afternoon.
Firefighters said the three boys, who are brothers, were onboard the boat when they lost control in the extremely cold and fast-moving water.
It happened at 12:30 p.m. where the Klineline Bridge crosses Highway 99 in Hazel Dell, as the inmate crew from Larch Corrections Center was finishing their work for the day.
"We just thought it was some kids screaming until we seen their two heads bobbing in the water with the canoe upside down," said Nelson Pettis, a member of the crew. "They were coming down over flooded Salmon Creek. It was raging pretty fast."
Pettis said he took off his jacket and dove into the creek. He said the cold water made it difficult to breath and the current was too strong for him, let alone the children, to swim.
"I just let the current take me down until I could get to a spot where my feet hit ground and I tried to stay put. They actually came to me right there," said Pettis. "Right then, the current swept me from underneath my feet and I grabbed onto the kids and got them to a little island in the middle of the river."
They were able to get to a pile of wood debris in the creek, where they waited for rescue crews to arrive.
Larry Bohn, another member of the inmate crew, also jumped into the water. He helped the 16-year-old get to shore, then made his way down the creek to help Pettis with the younger children.
"They were really scared," said Bohn. "They kept telling us 'thank you, thank you' all over again."
Vancouver firefighters and a Clark County technical rescue team arrived, then safely brought the boys back to shore.
Jon Fowler, who also works on the inmate crew, said he helped the crew carry one of the brothers from the boat to shore.
The inmates made it to safety on their own.
All three boys and two of the inmates were taken to the hospital with mild hypothermia.
Their crew does not normally work in the Salmon Creek area. On Wednesday, they were filling in for another group.
"It's just good to see anyone from any background assisting another person out there and young kids out there, actually," said David Vincent, who was near the scene during the rescue operation. "I tip my hat to them. It's a great thing."
The three inmates are humble about their heroics.
"I think we did something that any good person would do. You see three helpless kids in a river, you help. That's what you do," said Fowler.
He later added, "Just cause we're incarcerated, doesn't mean we're bad people. We made some bad choices in our lives, but we're still, we're just like everybody else. We're just paying our debt for what we did wrong."
The members of the work crew are serving prison sentences for non-violent crimes, according to LCC staff.
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