It is a frigid, pitch-black two o’clock in the morning as DNR Ranger Micheal Crawley calls instructions across the rolling Ogeechee River, flooded out of its banks and a mile wide in places throughout the dense surrounding swamp. After tense hours of searching, Crawley and a friend, Justin Tanner, have finally located four desperate hunters, lost after a day of paddling a small boat around and through tens of thousands of trees bordering what had recently been the Ogeechee channel. Unable to find their way back through the looming maze to that channel as darkness fell, they sent out a 911 call for help—which is now, as Crawley says, “about 15 to 18 yards away.”
In-between, however, is the rushing Ogeechee. And there is yet another presence lurking in the swamp: the specter of death, awaiting its chance. It came very near having it.
March 29, 2013, saw rivers all across Georgia out of their banks due to weeks of heavy rain. The normally placid Ogeechee was no exception. It had swollen to encompass tremendous amounts of acreage along its winding path through Washington County and the small town of Davisboro.
Four residents: Andrew Lopez, 22, Mark Lopez, 26, Chris Lopez, 26 and Wesley Thomas, 27, of that community decided to get on the river in hopes of finding hogs pushed to high ground or fish stranded in flooded backwaters.
The opening scene, according to Crawley, is this: four men, three life jackets, three coolers, at least five rifles, plus fishing equipment in a 15-foot jonboat. There was no outboard motor, only a trolling motor and battery, which would fizzle powerless during the trip. At some point during the day, a dead hog would be added to the boat. Conditions were cool and windy, with temperatures expected to drop near 40 overnight. They did.
Crawley was off duty, or as off duty as a ranger gets, which is not very. Around 8:30 p.m., he received a call from DNR Sgt. Max Boswell, who reported the situation of the lost quartet and asked how best to get to the nearest point within a general area where the hunters were thought to be.
“The sergeant was an hour and a half away, and I was 10 minutes, so I responded to the call,” Crawley said. “I called Justin Tanner, who is a good friend and also farms the land that borders that portion of the river the subjects were lost on. We arrived on the property that borders the river at the end of Tanner Lane.”
Since he was technically not on the job, Crawley was in his personal truck, pulling a Polaris Ranger, but without emergency and other gear in his DNR vehicle. Not knowing how dire the situation was, there was no time to lose, however, so Crawley and Tanner drove the Polaris approximately 3 to 4 miles farther into the swamp, as close as they could get to the river. With the onset of darkness, the temperature fell rapidly, and the pair soon found themselves surrounded by low 40s air and even colder water.
“I began yelling for the hunters, and it was just a minute that we heard them yell back,” Crawley recalls. “I knew we were pretty close but wasn’t sure how far it was through the water in the dark to get to them. After about 30 minutes of yelling back and forth, I decided to go toward them.
“With only a cell phone with very little service, a flashlight, and a survival knife that belonged to Justin, we made our way toward them in waist-deep water. The water was very cold, approximately 35 to 40 degrees. Justin and I waded in the water about a mile before we made it to the river. We were yelling back and forth to get them to come to us, but they never moved.”
But after two hours in the excruciating cold, they never made it. At that point, Crawley knew something had to give, so he decided to go back to the truck and get more help and equipment. It was getting late, conditions worsening. Using a compass from Tanner’s survival knife, the two made their way to the Polaris, then back to the pickups and called for more help.
“We knew that whatever we did it was going to have to be from the ground or by boat,” Crawley said. “There was no way to get a helicopter in there, and even if it could have found them, there was no way to drop a basket down to them.”
Within a few minutes, Boswell arrived and it was decided that Crowley and Tanner would go back in the water to the river and once again attempt to draw the lost hunters to them. At long last, six hours after taking the call, Crawley finally saw the four—across the river 15 to 18 yards away. Within that span, over the course of the next few minutes, two men would cheat death but just barely.
“I wanted the weakest swimmer to go first so that we would have help on both sides of the river in case something went wrong,” Crowley stated. “I instructed them to one at a time put a life jacket on with only one layer of clothes and no equipment in their hands and swim to me across the river. If they had done that, all they would have had to do is float to me.”
But that’s not the way it went with the first swimmer, Andrew Lopez.
“The river was about 15 feet deep, and the current was swift,” Crawley said. “When Lopez made his way into the water, he only made it about 10 feet from the bank when the cold water and current overtook him. He wasn’t in the water 20 seconds before he began hollering for help and thrashing around.”
And then, he simply disappeared. Lopez had entered the river wearing a full set of insulated coveralls, with two rifles strapped to his back. Unlike the rifles, the life preserver was not strapped, or buckled, on. He slipped right through it, and down.
“I ripped off my jacket, gave my radio to Justin and dove into the river,” Crawley said. “I swam at an angle to catch up to the orange life jacket, which was all I could see floating. When I reached it, I felt something hit my foot under the water.”
Fortunately for Lopez, that something was him. Crowley dove down, grabbed Lopez by his clothing and hauled him to the surface. From there, the drowning man began battling for his life, almost losing it in the process.
“He began fighting and grabbing me trying to stay above water, then wrapped his arms around me and pulled me under,” Crowley stated. “I pushed off of the bottom and brought both of us back to the top. But he was now thrashing and fighting frantically. He was gasping for air when he took both of us under again. I again brought both of us above the water, and I knew that this time, it was either him or me. But I managed to gain control physically and began talking to him to calm him down.”
While this was happening, the two were being washed downstream, providentially winding up under a tree. Meanwhile, Chris Lopez had also jumped into the water and made it to the tree. He was able to get the rifles off Andrew’s back and with the help of the others, a human chain helped pull everyone to the bank. They were alive, but they were still on the wrong side of the Ogeechee. Crowley yelled across the river to Tanner, instructing him how to use the radio and call for more help.
Meanwhile, he and Andrew Lopez were extremely cold, and Crowley knew it was only a matter of time before hypothermia set in. One of the four had a lighter, so stripping off wet clothes, the ranger used a dry T-shirt from one of the those left on the bank to get a fire going while enough wood was collected to begin warming and drying everybody out as much as possible. Across the river, Tanner also built a fire to help keep warm in his wet clothes. It was now about 2:30, and Sgt. Boswell’s word over the radio was that it would be daylight before help could arrive.
After six hours, the boat arrived and got them all to safety. All that remained was the waist-deep walk back to the Polaris, in daylight this time, and the ride to the trucks and, at long last, home. Alive.
For his life-saving efforts, Crawley, who by the way was DNR Investigative Ranger of the Year in 2012, received an American Red Cross Wilderness Hero Award in addition to recognition from DNR and the Georgia Senate.
What does he think about hero status? “I just did what I was trained to do,” Crawley commented. “And Justin was there all the way. He was just as much a part of it as I was. If it came down to it, I’d do it again.”