Merced Irrigation District worker saves men

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 24, 2012 

— Two men who recently fell into Lake McSwain are lucky to be alive, thanks to the quick actions of a Merced Irrigation District information technology technician and others.

The incident happened Dec. 15, while MID employee Joseph Chance, 27, was spending a relaxing day away from the office and fishing with a friend at the lake.

The day suddenly took a turn for the worse when Chance heard a faint cry for help from about 100 yards offshore. Two men had fallen into the ice-cold waters of the lake and Chance immediately went into action.

"I was watching this canoe and all of a sudden, I saw it flip over," Chance said. "I didn't really think about it, I just went into react mode. I didn't have time to think about myself."

Chance ran to the marina, told the staff to call the park rangers and grabbed the keys of a pontoon boat to rescue the men.

Watching in disbelief, Chance's friend and soon to be brother-in-law, Robert Millan, 29, saw his friend struggling to start the boat as precious seconds slipped away.

"Joseph kept trying to start the boat -- it was another 30 seconds before we got on the boat," Millan said. "It sounded like a crash and we saw the guys floating in the water holding onto each other and the one life jacket they had."

The men had tipped their canoe when one stood up to get a better angle to reel in a fish he'd caught. They tried swimming to the shore, but the cold water cramped their muscles until they couldn't move and had trouble keeping afloat.

Chance and Millan, along with a park ranger, rode the boat to the men and pulled each one out of the water.

"They were dazed and in shock when we got them on the boat, just staring off into space," Millan said. "If we hadn't come out, they knew they were goners -- that's what they told us."

After getting the men inside the marina to warm up, Chance and Millan headed back into the waters to retrieve the canoe, fishing gear -- and the two fish the men had caught.

Marina staff turned up the heater and got the men out of their soaking-wet clothes. After being cleared by an EMT, the men took a moment to thank their heroes.

But Chance said he does not consider himself a hero.

"We were just lucky that I work for MID and knew where to go to get a boat," Chance said. "I would have hoped that someone else reacted the same way. I did it because I saw it, and it was the right thing to do."

Millan agreed. "I didn't really think about how we saved their lives," he said. "It's just something that you do. No thanks necessary -- if we were in their situation, we'd want someone to help us."

Victoria Sturtevant, a customer service representative with Twin Lakes Management, which owns the marinas on Lake McSwain and Lake McClure, watched the incident unfold.

"It was very scary at first because we've never had anything like that happen here," Sturtevant said. "I was just glad they were OK."

Chance's boss at the Merced Irrigation District describes him as a "stellar employee and a good man."

"I think it's outstanding that he took action. I'm very proud of him," said Jesse Kilgore, the MID's information technology manager.

"I think his experience as a combat Marine helped a lot. He has a cool head, doesn't panic under pressure, and takes immediate action without thinking of his own safety."

Kilgore said he's witnessed people panic during similar incidents, resulting in a drowning death.

"When you're out on a large body of water like that, anything can happen," Kilgore said. "But a lot of the employees at MID are like Joseph -- when people are in need, they will help them. If Joseph didn't act right away, those men could have drowned and two families would have been without a father this holiday."

After all was said and done, Chance, who will soon be a father, and his friend went right back to fishing -- but only for another hour or so.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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