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Three feet from her next breath

By Gail Wood

Four days after Carly Boohm nearly drowned during a canoe accident on Washington’s Wenatchee River, she slowly raised her arm from her hospital bed and waved to her mother.

Barbara Boohm cried. It was a miracle her daughter was alive. Carly had been underwater for 45 minutes.

“The doctors have used the word ‘miracle’ over and over again,” Barbara says.

Carly, 16, had never been in a canoe. Neither had Ruben Andrews and Marya Danzer, two of Carly’s best friends. On April 15, 2000, a cold Saturday morning, all three carefully stepped into a 14-foot, aluminum canoe and pushed off into the swift waters. Carly was in the middle. Because of unusually high rainfall and melting snow, the river was rushing at about 21,000 gallons per second, the highest rate in years.

They hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards when their canoe overturned, dumping the three friends into the snow-fed waters and sweeping them downriver. With their bright yellow life jackets keeping them afloat, they swam to a little sandy island. Ruben pushed the canoe to shore.

“I don’t want to get back into that canoe,” Carly protested, shivering with cold.

Ruben pointed to a sandy beach downriver just past the Sleepy Hollow Bridge. He felt it was their only escape.

Returning to the river, they approached the narrow, two-lane bridge. Then the canoe shifted broadside. Ruben spotted a boulder.

“Paddle harder,” Ruben shouted.

But the canoe struck a pillar under the bridge and capsized. Ruben and Marya, thrown free of the canoe, swam to shore and safety.

Carly fought to free herself. The tremendous force of the river wrapped the canoe around the bridge support, collapsing one side of the canoe and clamping tightly on Carly’s leg. She was just three feet under the surface in water that was about 40 feet deep at the bridge.

One minute passed. Two minutes passed. Someone from the shore saw Carly’s hand frantically waving above the water and dialed 911 on a cell phone. It was 2:49 in the afternoon.

Just then, Everett Gahringer, a volunteer policeman patrolling the river in his 15-foot aluminum boat, spotted Carly’s upraised hand. He revved his 100-horsepower motor and quickly pulled next to the overturned canoe. He could see Carly struggling.

As Gahringer fought to hold his boat still, a friend onboard reached toward Carly. Their hands nearly touched.

Three minutes passed. Carly’s hand went limp.

“Please God, save this girl,” Gahringer prayed. “Don’t let her die.”

Frantically, Gahringer wrapped a rope around the canoe. He circled the canoe several times, fruitlessly tugging at the rope in the hope of jarring Carly free.

Ten minutes passed.

Three men in the sheriff’s V8 inboard jet-engine boat arrived and tried pulling the canoe free. Again it was futile. Tons of water pushed against the canoe.

Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty minutes.

Not knowing what to do, Gahringer went to shore, thinking the rescue was over. It was now about 3:15. Carly had been underwater for 26 minutes. Everyone thought it was too late to save her, but Shawn Ballard, one of the medics on the scene, knew the icy waters slowed Carly’s body and extended her chances of surviving.

“Let’s try again,” Ballard yelled through cupped hands, setting into action another rescue attempt. “We’ve got until 3:30.”

Just then, a yellow county fire truck rolled onto the bridge. A hole was punched through the side of the canoe and a cable was attached. The tires of the fire truck bounced under the strain of the winch, which was capable of pulling 30,000 pounds. Slowly, the canoe began to rise and the sheriff’s boat rammed it.

Carly surfaced.

Gahringer revved his motor and raced downriver to retrieve her.

After being underwater for 45 minutes, Carly was free. She wasn’t breathing and her heart had stopped. But now at least she had a chance.

Inside the ambulance, Ballard used shock pads to jolt Carly’s heart back to life. It stopped, started and stopped again. Ballard injected adrenaline directly into her heart. All this time, Ballard, a Christian, was praying, “God, please save this girl.”

Carly’s body temperature was 72 degrees when she arrived at the hospital. Doctors didn’t think she’d live through the night. But four days after nearly drowning, Carly slowly raised her arm and waved to her mom, who was sitting by Carly’s hospital bed. It was a miracle. Carly was alive.

Carly’s recovery wasn’t over. The straight-A student had to relearn how to walk and talk. Reading a third-grader’s book was a struggle. She spent two and a half months in the hospital and went to physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy for months after the near drowning. She appeared on Dateline and The Today Show.

“We feel that God has given Carly back to us,” says Carly’s father, Phil. “She’s an answer to prayer.”

GAIL WOOD is a freelance writer and lives in Washington state.

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