Local fisherman Ken Gifford was in the right place at the right time to help rescue an 8-year-old boy who authorities said fell into the Rock River downtown Sunday afternoon.
Janesville Police Department Sgt. Chad Pearson said in a news release Sunday that the boy fell into the river from the ARISE Town Square pier at about 2:10 p.m. Sunday. There is no protective fencing or railing around the pier to keep people out of the water.
Witnesses said the boy was flailing to stay afloat in the rushing, rain-swollen river.
Witnesses and Gifford said the boy had been pulled downstream from the town square and was struggling to grab hold of a ledge at the base of the river wall as water swirled past and pulled him farther downstream, at times away from the river wall, where the water is shallowest.
The boy was swept under the Court Street bridge, and witnesses said there were moments when they could see him just barely bobbing above the surface.
“I don’t know how he stayed afloat. The water looks like it’s going along about 4 or 5 miles an hour. That’s fast,” Kevin Spaulding, an onlooker, said. “Some guy just kept yelling, ‘Stay on your back, kid! Stay on your back!’ He floated somehow.”
In the news release, Pearson said the boy grabbed a rope an officer threw him from the parking lot of RiversEdge Bowl, 215 S. River St. The officer pulled the boy to the edge of the river wall embankment and held him there, but he was not able to lift the boy out of the river because of the steep embankment, according to the release.
Another officer who arrived at the scene had seen Gifford in a fishing boat with an outboard motor downstream from the boy near the Racine Street bridge.
Gifford, a Janesville resident who only moments before had put his boat into the river to fish for walleyes, heard police yell to him that a boy was in the river. Police had already called for a water rescue boat, which was en route, but they wanted Gifford to motor upstream and get to the boy if he could.
Gifford said when he reached the boy in his boat, the child was clinging to the ledge at the base of the river wall, which was covered with slippery debris and submerged under about 2 feet of water, and was trying to stand up.
Gifford said he pulled his boat up next to the wall and hauled the boy into the boat. From there, police were able to hoist the boy over the embankment and into the bowling alley’s parking lot, according to the news release.
Gifford said the river channel runs near the spot where the boy was clinging, and he said the channel is about 6 feet deep right now, probably with a strong undertow.
“If he’d have gotten pulled out past the shallows where it’s more than just a couple feet deep, that would have been really bad,” Gifford said.
Janesville Fire Department Battalion Chief Chris Lukas said the boy seemed exhausted from being pulled down the river but that otherwise his condition was “stable.” A woman who a Gazette reporter observed crying and running toward the ambulance got in back with the boy.
Lukas and police said the boy was taken to a hospital to be checked out.
Spaulding and another onlooker pointed to Gifford, who was still on his boat in the river.
“That guy is a hero. He saved that kid’s life. I’m sure of it,” Spaulding said.
Gifford said anybody else would have done the same thing.
“The police ran over and asked me if I could help a kid in the water. Of course. That’s a no-brainer,” he told The Gazette.
Not long after his water rescue, Gifford had moved his boat back out to the middle of the river and was casting a fishing line off a long pole.