But adult men heard the boys screaming, realized they were in trouble, and dove to the rescue. Adult men who were working in the area. Adult prison inmates on a work detail:
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."
According to the story, the three boys and two of the inmates were treated for mild hypothermia, but the inmates are downplaying any talk that they're heroes:
"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."
We have this awful tendency to create categories of people: good people/bad people, people like us and people who are others, our families, friends, and neighbors to whom we ought to be kind and helpful versus those total strangers over there who we can swear at in traffic or ignore when they're in pain. For most of us, "prison inmates" are a scary category of Other, of people that we'd rather not think about and find frightening or unsettling.
But these particular inmates, non-violent offenders at work on the side of the road, will never be those Others to this family, to three brothers who might have drowned in the frigid waters when they lost control of their canoe. I like reminders to my own judgmental self to look past the labels and see the person beyond, that member of my common human family who is indeed my neighbor, even if I lack the faith as yet to see it. I think God has sent me a lot of those reminders lately, and I hope I can become a better person one of these days, a person who sets aside the labels and categories and sees in each person I encounter that priceless and precious soul for whom alone our Lord would have endured the agony of the Cross. Those prison inmates in the story are closer than I to that way of knowing, because they unhesitatingly raced into what could easily have been deadly peril for the sake of children they didn't even know.