Off-duty post firefighter saves man's life at lake
August 9, 2013
FORT RILEY, Kan. -- A Fort Riley firefighter was at the right place at the right time when he saved a man from drowning June 25 at Lake Shawnee.
"People needed help, and I was the one in the water," said Daniel Lawton, firefighter, Station 4, Fort Riley Fire and Emergency Services.
To Lawton, who was off duty at the time of the incident, he was simply doing his duty. But others are calling him a hero.
"I have my own heroes, and I don't put myself on the level that they are at," he said. "I just happened to be there at the right time. And, it is just something that my brothers in my workforce do all the time in the fire service, and medics and cops. This is what the public sector does."
What they "do all the time," in this case, was save a life.
Lawton was fishing that evening at Lake Shawnee and was getting ready to head back to shore at about 9 p.m., after the sun had set and winds were beginning to pick up, he said.
That was when he noticed a man struggling to paddle a skiff, which is a small boat, with three children and a woman aboard. Lawton said he was keeping an eye on the skiff as it drifted further from shore. He said he figured he would at least swing by to let them know the winds were picking up and to be careful. Before he could, the man paddling fell into the water without a lifejacket on.
"When I pulled up, he was treading water, and the boat was getting a good bit of distance from him," Lawton said, adding he asked the man if he was capable of swimming to the nearest dock or shore, while he went after the skiff with the man's Family in it. The man replied he was.
Lawton proceeded to tie the skiff to his kayak and return to check on the man.
"Then, I turned around to see how he was doing, and I noticed he was really starting to struggle. He started to go under the water, and I heard him holler 'help' a couple of times. There were spectators at that point, so I had them call 911 to get people headed that way as fast as possible," Lawton said. "As I was getting closer and closer, he started really going under. Luckily, as I was coming up to him, he was just under the surface of the water, and I was able to grab a hold of him and kind of pull him up to the side of the kayak."
Lawton gave the man his lifejacket and kept him afloat at the side of his kayak, while they made their way back to shore where emergency responders were waiting.
Just "doing what it is we're trained to do," is how Lawton described his actions.
"As soon as you see something like that, there's no decision to be made; it's automatic at that point," he said. "I've been a firefighter for 12 years now, and it doesn't matter whether I drive up on a vehicle accident or anything else, I mean, it's automatic at this point … Whether you're on duty or not, doesn't matter, you're going to do it."
Lawton credited his training -- both in Alaska, where he was a firefighter in the Air Force, and as a Fort Riley FES firefighter -- for the successful rescue.
"You train incessantly, so that you don't have to have any thought process outside of what's the normal that you train to do. It doesn't matter whether I'm on duty or not. When something like that happens, firefighters problem solve, and there were some problems that needed solved, so I just went through the steps of what was most important," he said.
First responders, local media and the Family considered Lawton a hero. The man rescued, who Lawton said was, above all, concerned for his Family, was very thankful.
"He was pretty traumatized by the event … I think he realized the severity of the situation once he got out on the water," Lawton said.
Lawton also said he told the man as they returned to shore, "You got a second chance tonight. Everybody gets a chance to use it. Be wise about this."
Among those who said they believe Lawton is a hero is Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, commanding general, 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley.
"One of the things I tell people all the time is to be somebody's hero," Funk said. "By saving a life, particularly while off duty, Dan did just that. His bravery and responsiveness epitomizes the qualities of the superb civilian force that serves alongside our great Soldiers here at Fort Riley."
Lawton said he hopes the man, his Family and others reflect on what happened that evening at Lake Shawnee and realize that boating and other water recreation is serious business.
"With anything else, you need to plan your trip, accordingly," he said. "Especially in Kansas, something that can change so quickly, anybody who has lived here or even who is new here knows the weather here is extremely dynamic, and the wind is part of that dynamic. And … when combined with water, wind is a really difficult thing, especially when you don't have a motor."
Despite the claims of heroism though, Lawton asserted his actions were nothing out of the ordinary.
"I saw that situation escalating, and I was there at the right time for it," he said.