Kayaker reflects on near-tragedy at Huron River site in Milford
Jun. 15, 2011 Hometownlife.com
Written by Aileen Wingblad
A kayaker who nearly drowned last month after falling into the swirling waters at the base of a dam on the Huron River in Milford said he never noticed posted signage warning about the dangers of entering the prohibited area. “I just saw whitewater — and thought it would be fun to play in,” said Damon Jaroslawski of Commerce Township. The 30-year-old seasoned boater with a decade of experience as a firefighter didn't realize he was risking his life that afternoon of May 21, just hours after a teenaged canoeist drowned at the dam along with a Milford man who tried to save him.
Jaroslawski said that as he and some friends — Rebecca Johnson, Keith Lamphear, Cathy Tesolin and Eben Osgood — made their way down the Huron River from the Proud Lake boat launch, they had heard there was “some sort of accident and the river was closed” near the dam by the wastewater treatment plant. There was talk of two people drowning but details were sketchy, he said, so he and the others continued along their route westward through Milford. They stopped to picnic just east of the dam and watched as firefighters and police called to the emergency eventually left the area and the river was reopened. Once he and his friends portaged over the dam, Jaroslawski got back in his kayak and, spotting the whitewater at the dam's base, paddled directly into it.
TRAPPED IN TURBULENCE “My plan was to just go into it, play in it and then have it shoot me out,” Jaroslawski said. “The whitewater just attracted my eye. I never intended to put myself in harm's way.” But what seemed like a harmless adventure to Jaroslawski turned to near tragedy when he found himself trapped in the turbulence and attempted to free himself. “I was having a good time, playing in the foamy whitewater when my kayak began to spin and the dam sucked me in. I tried getting out, and on my third try my kayak capsized, so I baled out and went under water right away.” Jaroslawski recalls popping up a couple times for a few seconds, just long enough to get a quick breath of air. He grabbed at his kayak — which was in a vertical position — but soon let go.“I was just being thrown around more by holding on,” he said. “My main concern was keeping my head above water, so I tried floating. Then I was thrown to the bottom of the river, into rocks and walls and concrete.”He hit his head several times, he said. “And each time, it really hurt. It was the most force of water I ever felt in my life.”Soon after, the pummeling became too much to bear, he said. “I remember getting thrown under and hitting the bottom, and telling myself I had enough. I just held on to a rock and pretty much made peace with the fact that this was how I was going to die. I was done. I couldn't deal with it anymore, and slowly everything went black. ”The next thing he remembers is laying on the river bank wearing a cervical collar and hearing a medical emergency worker ask him his name. Once oxygen was administered, he said, all he wanted to do was “lay there and catch my breath.
”‘STILL HERE FOR A REASON' Jaroslawski spent the next 24 hours in the hospital as medical personnel monitored his blood oxygen levels. He later learned his friends played a pivotal role in his survival. Johnson, he said, was “basically the eyes” and kept focused on his location as he struggled in the river. Lamphear was the one who dove in, grabbed him and pulled him to the river bank. And Tesolin and Osgood performed CPR on him before emergency personnel arrived. Jaroslawski said he and Tesolin have since talked about how vital it is to know CPR.“You might never expect to use it on a friend, and you never know when you are going to need it,” he said. “I'm very proud of her. There is no way I could ever thank her enough.”The only residual physical affect of his ordeal is some nagging back pain. He's seeking a physician's advice for it.
Obviously, I know I am very lucky — but that isn't the word I like to use to describe it,” Jaroslawski said. “All I know is I am still here for a reason. There's still stuff I need to do. And I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the four people that I was with.”He said he feels very sorry for the two families that lost loved ones on the river that day. “Sometimes I think there was a chance that I wouldn't be here right now,” he said. As village officials continue to consider additional safety measures at the dam site, Jaroslawski urges them to institute changes so that warnings are much more prominent. The current signage is not noticeable enough and therefore inadequate, he said.“If there was a cable across the river (there) I wouldn't have done it. Or if there were buoys like they have at the top of the dam, that would keep people from crossing over,” he said. “Maybe bold red letter across the wall. Something. Something has to be done so this never, ever happens again.”