Colorado park rangers recognized for saving 11 from boat that capsized in Lake Pueblo last month
It's an uncommon sight for landlocked Colorado: sand, a shoreline, a pier with a multitude of boats and open water. But one thing about Lake Pueblo State Park feels familiar — the unpredictable Colorado weather.
"It happens on a dime," seasonal Title 33 ranger Seth Herndon, a Cañon City native, said of the weather shifts that can take place at the park.
That's what occurred on the evening of Sunday May 29, when a boat carrying 13 people capsized amid high winds, sending five adults and eight children into the cold waters of the lake.
Herndon was out on patrol with his partner, Joe Portteus, who is a fully commissioned ranger, on what was a nice day, until the temperatures dropped and the winds picked up, creating choppy waves.
The two remained on the water in their 24-foot Boston Whaler patrol boat for a time as many of the other boats went ashore. Eventually, the rangers docked the boat and began to patrol the waters using binoculars, keeping track of where each boat was.
"We were almost like 'oh well I don't think we're going to get a call' and that was the moment that we got a call: 'Hey this boat capsized you need to go out there,'" said Herndon, 28.
Herndon and Portteus unslipped their boat, which was still running, turned on the lights and sirens and rushed to the aid of those in the boat, speeding across the lake as waves crashed over the bow.
"The waves were so big they were even pushing that boat around and there was a moment I thought, this boat might not make it out there," said Portteus, 39.
The two knew drowning wasn't the only danger the victims faced. Hypothermia from low water temperatures was also a concern.
Based on the boat, a 16-foot sterndrive built for six, Portteus and Herndon thought they would be rescuing a small party.
When they located the boat, they realized the situation was more dire. They found unused life jackets floating in the water, then the nose of the capsized boat, then two people, then six, then more.
The group of people were separated and beginning to scatter into the water.
Some children in life jackets were being held by adults who weren't wearing one.
Portteus navigated the boat to each person, and Herndon helped them in, grabbing children first.
"I was in the bow of the boat, my arms over the edge, just grabbing a kid and putting them in. A couple of them needed CPR, whatever I had to do, push the water out of their lungs. 'Good job you're crying, let me get the next one,'" Herndon said.
The two worked as quickly as they could with little conversation between them. Herndon would load a person into the boat and as soon as they were settled Portteus would move to the next person, careful not to hit anyone.
The two rescued 11 people, including eight children, placing them on a boat rated for nine people. The rangers eventually loaded 10 people on their boat, and a good Samaritan brought the 11th to shore in his personal boat.
According to Herndon, the children were nearly hypothermic; one was in cardiac arrest.
All but two people in the group of 13 survived. Jessica and Joshua Prindle drowned in the incident. The two were husband and wife, according to the Pueblo County Coroner's Office.
Herndon said that Jessica died while holding up three children.
"She was already gone when we arrived," Herndon said. "It looked like for her last breath... she was still hanging on to those kids ... She put those kids' lives above her own. She kept those kids above water which allowed us to pull them out."
The two said they never saw Joshua, whose body was recovered two days after the incident.
For their heroic actions, Herndon and Portteus have been nominated for the CPW life-saving award from the Colorado State Parks Employee Protective Association.
The duo had only been working together for a month before the incident. Portteus said he had selected Herndon as a partner because he was a member of the Marine Corps for five years and served in Kuwait on Operation Inherent Resolve.
"I tend to look for that when I pick a partner," Portteus said. "Those guys have worked out real well in the past, it's because of stuff like that, they think well under pressure. They're used to intense situations."
Herndon, who grew up in Pueblo West, playing in the same park, continues to serve and help people because that's what he enjoys.
"Everyone that applies for this job, we're applying for this job because we like to help people," Herndon said. "We're out here doing our job because we enjoy helping other people."
Portteus joined the rangers because his uncle worked as a conservation officer in Indiana and always had fun "toys" such as snowmobiles and 4-wheelers. As for his co-workers and fellow rangers, he says he's never met such a big group of people that he instantly gets along with.
The pride and gratitude the pair feel from being honored and praised for their actions also stirs up conflicting feelings about not being able to save Joshua and Jessica Prindle.
"You don't really know how to feel about a rescue operation where two people still died,"Portteus said. "I've got a daughter roughly the same age as some of those kids and so I think about it a lot. They woke up the next morning and their whole world was different."
The Prindles' deaths are two of 13 drownings to happen on Colorado's waterways so far this year. Officials with parks and wildlife say the state is on pace to beat 2020, which was the deadliest year on record for such deaths at 34.
Herndon and Portteus emphasized safety while enjoying Colorado's aquatic parks.
Kids under the age of 12 are required to wear a life jacket, and Herndon said it's not a bad idea for older kids and adults to put one on too, especially if they notice the weather changing. He theorized that the adults in the boat from the May 29 incident likely didn't have time to put on a jacket after the vessel had capsized.
Portteus said people should know their boat, how it drives and pay attention to the weight limits. Boats maneuver differently at varying weights and in inclement weather, he said. He also said people should know the rules and regulations of the park and rangers are happy to help with education.
"If you want come out and have fun but you're not sure of the rules, come talk to us we're happy to talk to people," Herndon said.