Sgt. Michael Johnson

Sgt. Michael Johnson (Submitted photo / May 28, 2014)

The Savage Mill Trail at Savage Park is a popular destination, but the park’s scenic beauty belies its inherent dangers.

On the afternoon of Sunday, May 25, county police Sgt. Michael Johnson came face to face with those dangers when, during a routine patrol, he came upon a nightmare situation.

A 9-year-old girl, who had been on the scenic trail with her family, had fallen into the river and was being swept downstream by the current. Johnson, a 16-year veteran of the force, said he did what he was trained to do; He jumped in the river and saved the drowning girl.

“I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time during the right circumstances,” said Johnson, who routinely patrols the area. “I was very grateful that it all worked out the way it did. 

“People don’t realize how dangerous those currents can be.”

Police did not release the name of the girl. 

While Johnson’s harrowing actions played an enormous role in saving the girl’s life, he knows that it was a stroke of good fortune that ultimately allowed him the opportunity to act.

Johnson was working an overtime detail for Memorial Day, when at around 4:15 p.m. he was walking the riverbank and heard screaming. He looked toward the river and saw the girl being swept approximately 50 to 70 yards downstream, he said.

Without giving it a second thought, Johnson said, he ran after the girl along the bank while the park ranger he was with searched for a rescue rope. As he sprinted to keep up with the pace of the river, Johnson said the girl stopped when her foot became trapped underneath a rock.

“It was lucky she was caught there, it gave me enough time to get down there,” Johnson said.

As Johnson caught up to the girl, he noticed she was struggling to keep her head above the water, which he said was about chest high.

He was faced with a decision: Wait until the County’s SWIFT water rescue team arrived, or jump in the river and attempt to save the girl himself.

After quickly surveying the area, Johnson said the choice was clear.

“My concern was she might free her foot and get swept further down the river. She was crying and scared,” he said. “I didn’t know how long it would take for them to get down there. ... I didn’t see any other option.”

Johnson said he unbuckled his gun belt, dropped all other unnecessary weight and jumped into the river. He said it wasn’t long before the current began to sweep him away as well, but he was able to grab onto a crate wedged between two rocks, which allowed him to steady himself, Johnson said. 

With one hand on the crate, Johnson stretched out, freed the girl from the rock and helped her to hore.

In the moments after the rescue, Johnson said he recalls receiving a big hug and gratitude from the girl’s stepfather. While he appreciated the gesture, he said it wasall part of a day’s work.

“Police, fire, military, these are things that we do. We put ourselves out there, and it’s part of our job. It’s just what we do,” he said.

Police Chief Bill McMahon applauded Johnson’s action.

“This is an example of the ways in which our officers put their lives on the line every day,” McMahon said. “We are very proud of Sgt. Johnson for all that he did to ensure this situation had a good outcome.”

Johnson said that although the incident had a positive outcome, it highlights the importance of following the park rules; chief among them is no swimming.

“We encourage everyone to enjoy our parks and remember to use good judgment, follow the rules and be safe,” he said. 

As summer gets underway, county police and Recreation & Parks staff are stressing that swimming is not allowed in any county park. Officials said signs are posted with symbols to eliminate language barriers.

Officials said open water swimming poses risks not present with pool swimming and should be considered more dangerous.