By Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Little
32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command
FORT BLISS, Texas, Aug. 23, 2011 – "I asked my dad, 'Please don't let me die like this. I have a kid in my arms,'" said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Don Schmidt, a Patriot missile system technician here for B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery.
These were Schmidt's thoughts before a piece of debris struck him on the head and he lost his grip on 11-year-old Angel Sandoval, resulting in the boy being swept away by raging flashflood waters.
A fierce July 23 rainstorm that’d pummeled the area surrounding Tucson, Ariz., caused Schmidt to risk his life in an attempt to save the boy, named Angel, from drowning.
Many low-lying areas in the southwestern United States flood easily, Schmidt said, because of a combination of intense rain and poor drainage.
Schmidt, who hails from Tucson, said he is well aware of the areas that become dangerous and impassable when severe weather strikes. He had returned home and was visiting his family when dark, thick rain clouds filled the sky.
"I was home playing with my baby for about an hour when this huge monsoon storm rolled in and it started pouring," Schmidt said. "Initially when I went out it was still raining and I was trying to help the county [highway personnel] put out the 'Do not enter when road closed' signs."
These signs are placed at sections of roads intersecting with a usually dry riverbed, Schmidt said, which is also referred to as a "wash." He had helped position a road closing sign when he noticed how unusually high the water was in the previously dry riverbed.
"I remember leaving my truck running because I was just going to videotape [the water-filled riverbed] because I had never seen the wash this full," Schmidt said. "I recorded approximately 10 seconds of video … I took a couple of steps forward to get a better view of stuff that floats by in the wash."
On the opposite side of the river, Schmidt noticed a group of young men running along the bank and staring intently at the water. That's when he noticed Angel floating down the river as the powerful current pulled his head underwater.
"They screamed 'Help, help; he's in the water,’" Schmidt said. "I jokingly laughed to myself and said 'My wife's going to kill me and I hope no one steals my cell phone.'"
Schmidt, who in no way considers himself a strong swimmer, tossed his phone and dove into the raging, debris-riddled water, oblivious to what was awaiting him.
"I got a hold of Angel right away; he was fighting with me but I managed to get control of the situation," Schmidt said. "I got him to where his back was in my arm pit. We kept getting pulled underneath; I mean we're getting dunked constantly."
They gasped for air as their heads burst above water for only a quick two or three seconds and then they were once again submerged, Schmidt said.
"Ninety percent of my time in the water was spent underwater," he said. "There was one point where we went under [for about] 20 or 30 seconds. [When you resurface] you don't get good breaths. I was stretched out on my back and I was fighting to keep us above water; I swear I thought I was going to die."
Schmidt said he had a tight grip on Angel with his right arm while using his left arm to frantically grab at thorny branches in unsuccessful attempts to free them from the strong current. These branches caused deep lacerations on Schmidt’s hand and arm.
It was at this point, Schmidt said, that he asked his father, who’d passed away in 1999, to help him out of the perilous situation.
"I said: 'Dad please, let me get home to my baby and my wife; let me get this kid out of here. I can't die like this, I don't want to be found face down in a muddy wash,'" Schmidt said.
At that very moment, a large piece of debris struck Schmidt, splitting his bottom lip.
"When I got whacked, I still had him by the shirt but my grip had loosened up,” Schmidt said. “Somehow I lost grip [of him] and I'll never forget this kid looking at me like I let go of him … that still haunts me to this day.”
Schmidt then hit a sandbar and was pulled ashore by an onlooker. Angel, too, hit a sandbar on the opposite side of the wash and was rescued by onlookers. Schmidt had battled the ravaging current for nearly five minutes. Angel was swept away further upstream while he tried to save his younger sister who’d also fallen into the water.
Schmidt, Angel and his sister were taken to the hospital for medical treatment and then they were released.
"My wife was pretty upset and didn't speak to me the entire trip to the hospital," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said he didn’t think of being a hero when he jumped into the water to help Angel.
"I didn't jump in the water for guts and glory," Schmidt said. "I just hoped that someone would do the same for my kid in that situation. Maybe I didn't change the world, but at least I made a difference in someone's life."