Magazine Feature / People

Alumnus rescues drowning woman from Colorado River rapids

On Aug. 4, brothers Jay and Drew Nelson (BA’ 02) were enjoying the end of a long weekend, parking their camper for some fishing and dinner along the Colorado River.

What the two Valparaiso High School graduates didn’t expect was to be swept into a treacherous rescue of a barely conscious woman from the chilly, rapidly flowing waters.

Jay Nelson, 35, now lives in Breckenridge, Colo. Drew Nelson, 29, was visiting from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he now lives and flew back to on Wednesday. The pair stopped in Dotsero, Colo., about two hours west of Denver, at a spot along the east bank.

Jay was by the camper cooking and Drew was fishing from the riverbank, when “utter chaos breaks out and people are screaming,” Jay Nelson said.

He looked to see an empty inner tube being taken downstream and his brother running full-speed into the river.

“I realize, ‘Oh my god, there’s a body … being taken down the river.’”

The person being swept away was Mickie Harrison, a 36-year-old mother of two from Dotsero, who was on a tubing trip down the river with friends and family.

Drew Nelson said he heard Harrison’s husband screaming, saw her a couple hundred feet upstream, and “went into autopilot mode.”

He did his best to judge her trajectory down the river and intercept her. And lucky for both of them he did, because what Nelson didn’t realize at the time is that the spot was just upstream from where the Eagle River meets the Colorado.

“There would have been a real problem if I didn’t intercept her the first time,” he said. “Where the two rivers meet, you can get sucked into a whirlpool.”

The water was deep enough where he caught Harrison that the 6-foot, 6-inch, 185-pound Nelson couldn’t touch bottom.

“We’re both along for the ride together. She’s limp, she’s not putting up any resistance,” he said. Nelson swam with one hand and held Harrison’s head above water with the other as his brother yelled to him to swim to the opposite bank.

Nelson said that when he got Harrison to shore, her eyes were closed and her skin was blue, but she was still breathing.

In the meantime, Jay Nelson had run up the embankment to the nearby interstate and sprinted over the bridge to the other side to meet up with his brother.

Jay Nelson, who has had medical training as an EMT, said Harrison “was going into shock, she was absolutely hypothermic.”

He told his brother, just out of the water, to run back to the camper to get a blanket. Within 10 to 15 minutes, firetrucks and ambulances arrived.

“The paramedics got to her and she lives,” Jay Nelson said. “It is one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed.”

Drew Nelson said the image that’s still in his head is seeing Harrison come back to consciousness and begin looking up into the world. “It was the craziest thing, like a newborn baby.”

On Thursday, Harrison said other than some blisters, she was doing fine. But she doesn’t remember much of the rescue.

“I remember somebody pulling me out. I guess I was in and out. I remember a lot of people were around me,” she said.

Harrison said she did the same tubing trip a year ago with her family and had no problems. She believes the cold water caused her to go into hypothermia and fall off her tube.

She says she’ll never raft the river again, but she does hope one day to thank Drew Nelson in person. She spoke to him by phone Tuesday to tell him what his act of bravery meant to her.

“I thank Drew and all the people there with all the deepest sympathy of my heart for saving my life, because if they weren’t there I probably wouldn’t have made it,” she said.

Their father, Don Nelson, still lives in Shorewood Forest, where his two sons grew up. Their mother, Leslie Nelson, formerly of Shorewood Forest, now lives in Breckenridge.

Don Nelson said his sons called him about 45 minutes after the incident to tell him what happened.

“I’m an extremely proud father,” he said, noting that Jay was a professional snowboarder who has seen his share of incredible things, but this topped them all.

“I am so proud of my little brother and what he did,” Jay Nelson said. “She would have died because there is no one else who could have gotten to her.”

Copyright © 2008 The Northwest Indiana and Illinois Times Newspaper Staff. Reprinted with permission.

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