CUMMINING, Iowa (WHO) — What started as a normal evening for Jason McLendon and his wife quickly turned into the opposite after they jumped into action in an attempt to save three people at Iowa’s Dale Maffitt Reservoir.
At 6:48 p.m. on Monday, the Dallas County Dispatch got a call requesting help for three people who had been fishing at Moffitt Lake and fell in the water. The Dallas County Sheriff’s Office said that a passerby helped two people out of the water and then dove to the bottom and pulled out the third who had been underwater for several minutes.
Authorities said the 14-year-old girl who was underwater later died at a hospital.
That passerby was McLendon.
“My wife and I were driving back from a friend’s house,” said McLendon. “I came across the dam here. I noticed a lady with a fishing pole ahead of us, walked out halfway in the road, walked back, looked a little confused. Thought they were just fishing. I get halfway down (the dam) and I see a man and a young boy running this way with a rope in their hand.”
McLendon said the boy asked him for help. Without hesitating, McLendon backed up his car, and he and his wife, Jana, got out and saw a lady screaming hysterically, pointing down at the water. McLendon looked down and saw two people struggling to stay afloat in the water.
“I looked and there’s a man and his boy in the water out about 10 feet. They’re going under,” said McLendon. “And I’m thinking right away, having been a former lifeguard, I’ve got to get in there and get them out.”
McLendon, a military veteran, was a lifeguard 30 years ago. He said his wife, Jana, told him, “go,” and he did.
“I saw a family in distress, they needed help,” said McLendon. “Everything felt automatic when I was swimming out there to them … and thank goodness we had the rope there.”
The man and boy who had flagged down the McLendons had tied the rope to a pole on the roadway above. That allowed McLendon to use it as a way to pull the two people in the water to shore. The steepness of the dam prevented anyone who was in the water from getting out without assistance.
“So we pulled him out, and I told the father to stay there because he was exhausted,” said McLendon. Once the boy and man were safe, McLendon had to catch his own breath.
For a moment, McLendon thought the rescue effort was over, but the woman above was still screaming. The family spoke Spanish, and McLendon does not, so it took the younger daughter of the family who was fishing to tell him that there was another girl in the water.
“I took some breaths and I swam out to near where she was pointing at. And I dove down in this water, so murky. You could see about 3 feet,” said McLendon.
Emergency responders had arrived and were telling McLendon to stop diving because a water rescue team was on the way.
“I told the officer we don’t have time for that. I got to go back. I didn’t have a choice. They needed help and I was here,” said McLendon. “I wasn’t going to come out of the water without finding her.”
After several attempts at diving down and not finding the girl, McLendon was holding onto the side of a fisherman’s canoe who eventually made his way over. Then, McLendon thought he saw the girl underwater. He described seeing a black circle the size of a dinner plate at the bottom of the water.
“I knew it was her because the whole bottom of the water was green,” said McLendon. “That (the shape) was out of place, and I just had it in my mind, ‘Go down and get up as fast as you can and then head to shore.'”
McLendon said once he got near the shadowy figure, he realized it was the girl. He grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her up to the shore where authorities used the rope to pull her to the road and started performing CPR.
“I just wanted her to be okay and safe. That’s all I was thinking about the whole time. And when I was in the water resting afterwards, that’s just all I thought about,” said McLendon. “And said a prayer for her and her family. … If it was my family, I would want someone to help in the same way. I mean, there’s still good people in this world. People still do help each other out.”
At the time McLendon talked with WHO 13 News, there was no news yet on the condition of the 14-year-old girl. He reached out to the station trying to see if he could find an update on the girl’s condition.
He said the image of the girl burned in his head, and her well-being was all that he had cared about.
“There’s always that part of your mind: What if?” said McLendon. “What if I had been here 5 minutes earlier? What if I could have rested a little less time to get out there, just increase chances? And you think about that too. But I have an encouraging wife, and she immediately reminded me that, you know, we got two out immediately. So that’s the important part.”
While the end result wasn’t everything they wanted, the McLendons believe in “right place, right time.” They said they know that’s where they needed to be at that exact moment in time.