If not for an off-duty police officer running the trails around Lake Zorinsky Thursday night, who knows who would have spotted a 12-year-old girl stuck in the mud. Firefighters needed to improvise to rescue Sarah Harper.
"She is stuck and we cannot get to her,” said the caller to 911. An off-duty officer saw the girl in the swamp-like conditions on the west side of Lake Zorinsky near 180th and F streets. It was too muddy to help. “She is not sinking at this time, but appears stuck. She is talking to us."
Eventually, firefighters donned wet suits and started walking. When they finally reached her and tried to dig her out, the mud kept backfilling and there was a vacuum effect on her legs. Harper was still covered to the waist. One firefighter was up to his armpits.
“It was almost like quicksand out there,” said OFD Battalion Chief Chris Harrison. "The lake is down, there's not a lot of water. It's pretty swampy back in there. She was stuck up to her hips and could not get out."
After nearly an hour in the unusual conditions, firefighters, using their training and ingenuity, rescued her. "I was looking for oyster shells and just slowly started sinking," said Sarah, an adventurous girl who had been in the mud looking for shells earlier in the day. She collected a big shell just before she got stuck.
Mom and dad are still thinking about how they rushed to the scene and saw the firefighters. "First thing I thought was get out of my way I'm looking for my daughter, not thinking that they were actually trying to rescue her."
"My husband and I we were going out to go shopping and we thought, Sarah's not home," said mom Alicia Harper. "We just had a feeling that something was wrong and we started looking."
Firefighters really needed to get creative. They weighed more than Sarah so they were sinking even faster and couldn't get very close. They had to come up with an idea, sort of like snowshoes. They put down body boards six feet in length and put four of them together to reach her.
In the darkness, Sarah says she wasn't worried, but she knew her parents would be, especially as rescuers maneuvered their way to her. "I was feeling really happy because I was finally getting out. I was really worried about my family because they didn't know I was stuck."
Firefighters later said it was a rescue they had never tried, but one they were prepared for. "We had to utilize back boards, which is a flat board that we carry patients out on and basically like snowshoe our way out there, crawling on the back board and then throwing another back board in front of that one," said Harrison.
Firefighters had to hose themselves down before getting back into the truck after the rescue. It was easy to see just how deep they waded into the muddy, swampy lake. Some had mud up to their armpits.
"We're grateful that she's here, she's alive and she's okay and she's got a lot less mud in her hair," said Alicia.
Initially it was thought that Sarah had hypothermia, but she was checked out at Lakeside Hospital and released.