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From the depths: Airmen act quickly in water rescue

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- "Breathe, baby! Breathe, baby!"

Claire Darnell tried again to give the little girl mouth-to-mouth at the edge of the pool. The child lay there, pale, eyes partly open but unmoving, pupils dilated. The rescue breathing didn't seem to be working.

"Breathe, baby!"

The fifth of August started out like any other Sunday at the height of summer. After church, Claire, her husband, Maj. Bart Darnell, and their three children made their way to the Splish and Splash water park at Camp Humphreys. They ran into two other families from Osan Air Base, Maj. Allen Selkey, his wife Elizabeth and their children, and the family of Maj. Greg Gagnon and his wife Johanna.

"It was your typical family day at the pool," said Major Darnell. "There were a lot of people there. It wasn't packed, but it was enough."

The overcast day brought down the late-summer Korean heat just enough to create perfect swimming weather. Parents and children alike were diving into the pool and playing games. The buzz of conversation rose above the splashes as adults discussed the upcoming work week and children made new friends.

Unfortunately, the same factor that created these ideal swimming conditions, a temperature-cooling overcast sky, made it difficult to see into the water.

Major Selkey was standing at the end of the diving section of the pool, ready to jump off one of the two low dives.

"It was one of those deals where something just seems wrong," he said.

With all the people milling around and in the pool, it took a moment to notice lifeguard Jason Hechtman making his way across the 12-foot-deep diving area toward the shallower 6.6-foot-deep end.

Major Selkey saw Hechtman swimming at top speed, and then he noticed a young Korean girl who was shouting, pointing at the pool and crying.

"I looked over and saw two shadows underwater," said Major Selkey. "The little girl was about two feet under and looked lifeless. The boy was at the bottom of the pool."

The lifeguard had reached the girl and was swimming back to the edge of the pool when his flotation device got caught in the roped buoys that separated the two sections of the pool. He tried to keep the girl above water and reach around to unwrap himself. Johanna Gagnon helped him get loose of the buoy and pulled the girl out of the water.

Meanwhile, Majors Selkey and Gagnon dove in the water and brought the boy to the edge of the pool.

"We had both kids on their sides," said Major Selkey. "Their jaws were locked, so we were going to have to [do rescue breathing] through the nose."

That was when Tom Casey, lead lifeguard, took over and began rescue breathing for the boy.

"After two or three breaths, the boy gasped and began to cry," said Major Selkey. "He was breathing again, 20 seconds after being out of the water."

Things weren't going as well for the little girl.

Mrs. Gagnon was performing rescue breathing, but the girl wasn't responding. Mrs. Darnell was watching from the other side of the pool. As a registered nurse, she had been trained that too many people can make an emergency worse, but it quickly became evident her services were needed.

"I've been a nurse for 13 years, but even I was in a panic," said Mrs. Darnell. "But then I thought, 'If I don't do anything, this girl is going to die.'"

She ran around to the other side of the pool, yelling, "I'm a nurse," and Mrs. Gagnon moved to let her continue the rescue breathing. At first, Mrs. Darnell had to use the mouth-to-nose method; however, Major Gagnon noticed the girl's stomach was rising, not her chest, meaning the breaths were not getting in the lungs.

"I tilted her head back, but her jaw was locked," said Mrs. Darnell. "I inserted my fingers, pulled her mouth open and gave her rescue breathing again."

It worked. After two or three breaths, the girl's legs began jerking. After three or four more breaths, the girl sat up and reached in the air.

"I put the girl in my lap and began hitting her back to make her throw up the water," said Mrs. Darnell. "She was in a daze."

As the girl expelled the water, the mother of the two children arrived. The Airmen at the scene handed the children to her.

"I'll never forget the look on the mother's face," said Major Selkey. "It said, 'I stepped away for two seconds, and here are some people saving my kids' lives.'"

Mrs. Darnell was still worried about the girl. She hadn't yet taken any deep breaths.

"But then I heard the most beautiful cry," she said. "Crying meant that air was getting in her lungs."

Emergency medical services showed up soon after and took the girl out on a stretcher, headed for the clinic at Camp Humphreys. The boy and his mother followed.

"I think our [Air Force training] was vital," said Major Selkey. "The biggest thing is taking action without delay. If it doesn't look right, engage quickly and assess the situation. We don't just sit there and watch."

Camp Humphreys garrison commander Col. John Dumoulin arrived a short while later and personally briefed everyone at the pool, letting them know the children had been released from the clinic and went home with their parents.

"Each day that goes by, as a parent, I think, 'Wow, that one was close,'" said Major Selkey. "But we were able to save them. It was a team effort."

After a close call like that, one would think it would cause an aversion to swimming, but Mrs. Darnell and her children were at the Osan pool Monday. Her children wanted to swim and she wanted to relax for her birthday.

"Thank goodness it had a happy ending," said Mrs. Darnell. "The best birthday present I got was this little girl coming back."

(Editor's note: The names of the rescued children and their parents were not immediately available.)