Captain Kenneth Willahan and Captain Rob Scott are leaders and close colleagues at Fire Station 95, located near Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Off-duty, they are best friends who spend family vacations together. Captains Scott and Willahan are being recognized for their courageous acts during a recent family vacation trip to Utah. On a picturesque rafting excursion in Moab, Utah, the captains found themselves involved in a dangerous river rescue.
Their group had paused for lunch along a sandy embankment of the Colorado River, in between sets of Class II and Class III rapids. As the children played and explored along the shore, the group’s rafting guide spotted signs of trouble upriver.
In the distance, their guide spotted an upside-down kayak racing towards their position. Soon after, two individuals appeared in the water behind the kayak. The pair showed signs of distress.
The rafting guide retrieved a rescue throw bag — a whitewater safety device with a floating rope. Then, the two captains and their guide ran upriver towards the overboard kayakers. The would-be rescuers spaced themselves along the shore, hoping to deploy the throw bag in time to catch the first victim. The distance was too great. The first kayaker was swept past them out of reach of the rescue rope. As the river carried the kayaker away, Captain Scott heard him yell out that his wife and son were in the water behind him. “My four-year-old is in the water! He can’t swim!” screamed the man. Captain Scott shouted downriver to alert the others as a woman and small boy came barreling down the rapids. Captain Scott waded into waist-deep water, hoping he could reach them. Unfortunately, he could not. The woman and little boy rushed by, visibly struggling to stay above water. A short distance downriver, Captain Willahan attempted to reach her. The woman extended an outstretched oar, but it was no luck. Another miss. So, without a life vest, Captain Willahan plunged into the river, swimming frantically behind the mother and child.
Captain Willahan swam to them, grabbed onto the oar, and assured them that everything would be okay. He tried to swim back to shore with one arm, but the current was too strong.
The three would have to endure another section of rapids on their own.
Captain Willahan held on tightly to the mother and child as they traversed the rapids. Even though the two were wearing life vests, the frigid river was exacting its toll. The mother and child were exhausted and losing strength with every passing moment. Without a vest, Captain Willahan managed to keep them all afloat with only one free arm.
Meanwhile, Captain Scott sprinted down the riverbank back to their raft. He and the guide ushered the group back into the raft to pursue Captain Willahan. They paddled furiously to catch up, scanning the banks as they rowed. Shortly after they cleared the rapids, a second kayak had caught up with Captain Willahan — it was the grandparents of the little boy. They had witnessed the whole ordeal while racing to catch up. Captain Willahan heaved the child into the grandparents’ kayak. With the boy safe, Captain Willahan could focus on saving the mother.
He held tightly to the side of the kayak with one arm and helped keep the woman afloat with the other. The grandparents paddled a short distance to a safe embankment. Moments later, Captain Scott and the rest of the party arrived at the rescue scene to find the mother, boy, and Captain Willahan safely ashore. The father of the little boy, the first of the kayakers to rush past the Captains while still on the riverbank, was rescued moments later by a group of paddleboarders.
Captain Rob Scott and Captain Kenneth Willahan successfully helped rescue a mother and her young boy at grave personal risk. Unknowingly, they also saved a third life, as it was later revealed that the mother was six months pregnant at the time of the incident. They exemplified exceptional bravery, courageous spirit, and the very best of the Los Angeles Fire Department.