Former Utah Air Guardsmen saves children from icy river

  • Published
  • By Maj. Krista DeAngelis
  • 151st ARW/PA
"Oh, this is going to be cold," thought Chris Willden as he threw off his jacket and jumped into an icy Utah river on January 1.

Armed with a gun, a knife, and years of police training, Willden, a former police officer and Utah Air National Guardsman, didn't think twice about diving into the freezing water to try to save survivors of a car crash on New Year's weekend. The story garnered national media attention praising Willden for his courageous efforts in rescuing the children from the Logan river.

"I heard a lady screaming something about kids in the car and I just reacted," he said.

Not knowing who or how many people were trapped in the car, Willden recalled jumping into the river and trying to open the vehicle doors.

"I remember jumping off the bottom of the car and then back down, and then yelling, 'I'm going to shoot out the window'," he said. After pulling the trigger and feeling around, he was initially unsuccessful in his attempt to locate anyone. Within a few seconds, seven onlookers jumped into the river to help lift up the vehicle.

"I remember thinking to myself that you're going to see some dead kids, so be prepared," he said, but as soon as the helpers lifted the car, Willden saw a nine-year-old girl who was alive and trapped inside by her seatbelt. Willden then took out his knife, cut it, and pulled her to safety.

After rescuing the first child, Willden saw another girl floating in the water.

"I thought she was a doll at first, and then I looked closer and realized it was a girl," he said. Bruce Willden, Chris' dad, helped pull her out of the water where she began breathing shortly after.

As the car was lifted up higher, Willden observed an unconscious four-year-old boy who was trapped in the vehicle. He used his knife to cut out his seatbelt and pulled the boy out where onlookers moved him to land.

After getting out of the water, Willden peeled off his frigid clothing and walked to his car thinking to himself that not everyone survived.

"I remember telling my 12-year-old son who was in my car that I thought there were two dead children up there. But a few minutes later, I heard cheering coming from where the boy was and I knew he was OK," he said.

An onlooker had performed CPR on the boy and revived him. Willden also found out that the other little girl was fine as well.

According to Willden and several news reports, the accident occurred when the driver of the vehicle, who was also the father of the boy and one of the two girls, lost control of the car on an icy road and slid into the river. Panicked, he unsuccessfully attempted to rescue the children. Had it not been for Willden, his dad, and the handful of other "Good Samaritans," there was a good chance that not everyone would have survived.

"There were a lot of good trained people where we needed them, when we needed them," he said.

As luck would have it, Willden and his father had not initially planned to drive down that road that weekend. Having been an accident victim in that same river two years prior, Willden joked that his family had teased him about not getting into another accident.

But he couldn't argue with fate.

"In talking with the trooper who responded to the accident, he said that the car had to weigh at least 4,000 pounds, and even more with how were eight guys able to lift that vehicle? I think there were a lot more hands we couldn't see pushing that thing," he added.

Willden, who was a former Utah ANG security forces member and South Salt Lake cop, currently works as the Utah Air Guard's Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) representative, and believes his background helped contribute to this story's happy ending.

"There's no doubt that my jobs have prepared me for this," he said.

The story made was picked up by hundreds of national news outlets, including CNN, USA Today, MSNBC, to name a few. Willden met up with the families of the accident victims for the first time on the set of Good Morning America this week.

"This could very easily have been a funeral for four of us ... Without hesitation, they just did what they had to do ... And that ... for our family, made all the difference, said Anderson."

Roger Andersen's wife, Mindy, thanked all the bystanders for saving the children's lives.

"Hero," she said, "is not even big enough for what they did."