Quick thinking and uncommon bravery averted a tragedy Wednesday at a downtown municipal park as a fearless 14-year-old saved 5-year-old Mason Varner from drowning.
Early Wednesday evening, Iosefa Riley John (who goes by Riley) and three of his friends decided to get out of the house for some fresh air at Cope Park, a baseball field and playground which runs adjacent to Gold Creek in downtown Juneau.
“We went on a walk around Cope and we took a break, sat down and were talking to each other about just anything,” John said. “It looked like a mother, we didn’t know if it was a mom or not, but she had some kids with her, they were climbing up a little area.”
All of a sudden, the boy lost his footing on an embankment and fell into Gold Creek.
“The little kid was getting up and he slid straight down a little slide of ice, off a little cliff onto a rock and into the water,” John said.
Varner fell between some fencing and a tree, John said. With recent rains and snow melt, Gold Creek was running fast.
“We all ran over to the little fencing area and looked over. We were all in shock, I didn’t know what to do, so I just reacted quickly, freaked out and jumped down the side of the cliff,” John said.
The Yaakoosge Daakahidi High School student then grabbed Varner as the two slid over rocks and down to where a dam stops the creek before it empties into a canal.
Gold Creek pools in this area, leading to depths of eight feet. There’s a small gravel driveway that runs down to the creek in this area, on which John used to climb out of the river with Varner in tow.
The babysitter, who was nearby when Varner fell, took action, too. She took the two other boys she was watching to safety and called 911.
Both Capital City Fire/Rescue and the Juneau Police Department responded to the scene, with an ambulance and a fire truck. CCFR also dispatched their water rescue team.
“As soon as I got there, Riley was coming down from the area of the park, holding the child in his arms and was bringing him to the ambulance,” JPD Sgt. Krag Campbell, who responded to the scene, said.
CCFR warmed Varner up with blankets but didn’t find a need to take him to the hospital for further treatment, Assistant Fire Chief Chad Cameron said. CCFR took Varner home to his mother, Kristen Hemlock.
In an interview with the Empire Thursday, Hemlock said her son suffered only bumps and bruises. She kept him home from Head Start preschool on Thursday, saying she has been too emotional since the ordeal to let him out of her sight.
On Thursday, the recuperating mom and son broke out the Easter candy a little early and watched Spongebob Squarepants. Varner told his mom he doesn’t want to go hiking anytime soon.
The boy tried to swim, Hemlock said, but “it didn’t work.” The young boy’s fingers hurt from grabbing at the ice on the way into the water.
Varner thought he was in trouble from the amount of commotion at the scene.
“He keeps tellling me, ‘it’s OK, mommy,” because I keep crying throughout the day,” Hemlock said. “What could have been is just terrifying to me. When I got the phone call,I didn’t know he was out of the water yet, so it was just, I had a couple minutes where I thought he was gone. It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through. It was like my heart got ripped out of me.”
Hemlock still hasn’t spoken to her son’s rescuer yet, but reached out his grandmother to express gratitude. She’s planning on meeting him Friday where the teenage hero will be receiving an award from the police department.
“I don’t know the exact words I am going to say yet, but I am just so thankful for him, that he saved my little boy. It could have been so much different,” Hemlock said. “I can’t even express in any words how incredible he is.”
The story spread on Facebook, where the Juneau Police Department was receiving criticism for not giving John a ride home after the rescue. But in an interview Thursday, JPD’s Campbell said he would have, but the hero had left the scene without anyone noticing during all the commotion. Campbell said that John left while he was interviewing the babysitter about what happened.
Lt. Kris Sell wrote on JPD’s Facebook page that “JPD could not be prouder of Riley. We not only wish we could have given him a ride home, we’d like to throw him a parade!”
Sell told the Empire that the department will honor John Friday at a school assembly with his classmates. The officers are also recommending John receive a Civilian Life Saving Award.
Like many heroes, John said he just “didn’t think about it that much” and simply followed his instincts.
“I just kind of did it, and then after, I kind of thought about it. I didn’t think I was going to be a hero, I just thought I’d kind of help the kid out. That’s pretty much it,” John said.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org