Kayakers’ rescue from Rock River was “top 5 most dangerous”

MILAN, Illinois -- Three kayakers found themselves in dangerous waters on the Rock River and nearly lost their lives Sunday, June 2, if it hadn't been for the coordinated efforts of first responders from multiple agencies and one man who put his decades of experience and own life on the line.

"It’s probably one of the top five most dangerous rescues I have been a part of in my last almost 20 years," said Conservation Police Officer Steve Francisko of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

He got the call at 5 P.M. on Sunday when he was patrolling near Cordova and put on his sirens to rush back to Milan.

"Didn’t have a lot of info, just that there were three kayakers had been swamped out of their kayaks about above 92 bridge, which is a real problem when you have a flood like this," he said. "Rescue boats, including this one, can't get up there. It's not a good place to launch."

But he knew the area well, and, "you have to think outside of the box a little bit."

"I thought the water might be deep enough to get the boat in here," he said, referring to 27th Street West on Big Island.

It also proved to be the speediest way to the Hennepin Canal at the Route 92 bridge, now that it was flooded.

But that spot where Francisko planned to cut from the Hennepin Canal over a flooded levee into the Rock River also made him nervous.

"What was really dangerous is shooting out from behind that 92 bridge," he said. "If I had hit a stump or something, if I had lost power, my boat would’ve gone against the Highway 92 bridge," he explained.

"I actually felt the levee bump underneath it when I went over. Didn’t break anything luckily."

Rock Island Arsenal and Rock Island Fire Departments had dispatched boats and a drone was flown to locate the kayakers.

"Rescuers were unable to locate the subjects at first, until Rock Island Fire Dept. crews on 8th St and 41st Ave. spotted the 3 kayakers in the water and had voice contact with them," Blackhawk Fire Chief Doug Dubree said in a news release.

Once on the Rock River, Francisko could see firefighters on the bridge pointing him upstream. Following their direction, he turned toward Turkey Island and his motor on and off to listen to calls for help in the timber.

His instinct proved right. Francisko found the kayakers holding on for dear life.

"Two of them had been swamped out of their kayaks, one was holding on to his kayak and a tree limb to keep himself above water. He didn’t have a life jacket on. The other guy, he was getting very fatigued. His kayak and his life jacket actually got washed away. The other guy threw his life jacket to him, and he only had it on through his arms. He didn’t have it zipped up. So it wasn’t doing a whole lot of good," he recounted.

Those two were in the most danger. The current was so strong, it literally ripped off one of the men's swim trunks, Francisko said.

A third individual was still in his kayak and wearing a life jacket.

Francisko was able to bring all three back to land behind Ted's Boatarama, bruised and fatigued, but alive.

"Their experience level was not quite where it needed to be out kayaking in this dangerous situation. They basically put in down below the steel dam, got into a bad spot above a log jam when the current hit them and that was it. They couldn’t outmaneuver fast enough. Once that current hit them, it took them right against a log and rolls them," he said.

The Blackhawk Fire Department statement reminds everyone "to stay off the rivers due to the swift current and amount of debris in the river. Also to stay out of the area around both of the low head dams (Steel and Sears dams) on the Rock River. The area around the dams is restricted and dangerous so no boaters of any type should be in the area of them."

The kayakers refused medical attention after the rescue. They were not charged or cited for any wrongdoing in this case as the Rock River is not closed at this time.

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