‘I just knew I couldn’t leave him’: Retired park ranger recalls pulling boy from submerged pickup

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OAKLEY, Summit County — Joe Donnell still gets emotional as he thinks about the boy he pulled out of a pickup truck that had been under the water at Smith and Morehouse Reservoir for about 10 minutes.

“I was afraid to leave him. I know I couldn’t live with myself, so I kept diving. I just kept going, praying hard,” he said Tuesday. “I just knew I couldn’t leave him.”

That 9-year-old boy remained in extremely critical condition and on life support Tuesday morning. But because of Donnell’s heroic actions, the boy at least has a chance.

Monday afternoon, a North Salt Lake family had their pickup truck on the boat ramp at the reservoir as they loaded their kayaks. A man and his wife were outside the truck with their three children, ages 9, 9 and 2, inside the vehicle, when the truck — which was facing toward the reservoir — began to roll into the water.

The truck ended up about 20 to 30 feet from shore and was completely submerged in about 15 to 20 seconds.

Also at the reservoir that day kayaking with his wife and daughter was Donnell, a park ranger who retired in 2016 with 25 years of service. Just as he was coming into shore, he “noticed the pickup truck started to roll forward and slowly went into the water, people chasing after it, a lot of screaming and crying and I wasn’t sure how many people were in there.”

Donnell described it as a very “chaotic” situation with a lot of people crying, screaming and praying.

“‘Dios,’ which in Spanish is ‘God’ — that’s what the mother was saying and also the first 9-year-old boy that was pulled out was saying ‘Dios,’ yelling out for God. And I heard my wife just praying,” Donnell said.

One of the 9-year-old boys was able to get out of the truck on his own and swim to shore. The family’s grandfather, who was fishing on shore, jumped in the water and was able to grab the 2-year-old girl just as the truck went fully under the water. Donnell said the grandfather then threw the toddler to Donnell’s wife who was nearby.

“I remember seeing him vividly tossing her 10 feet,” he said.

But by that point the grandfather was too fatigued to dive down to find the other 9-year-old boy still in the truck, according to police. That’s when Donnell said he took off his life jacket and dove after the boy. He said the vehicle was no longer visible, but he could see the bubbles on the water’s surface being created by the submerged pickup. He swam around the truck and found a rear passenger door open. Visibility under the water was very low.

“So I swam in, I looked for him, I couldn’t hold my breath more than 30, 40 seconds probably, and I had to resurface. So I just kept going up, getting air, going back down. I think I went down a total of seven times, maybe, and I think the seventh dive is when I finally found him,” he said.

Donnell says he remembers reaching in the truck and feeling the boy’s clothing and then yanking the boy close to his chest. By that point, he said the boy was floating near the truck’s roof close to the front windshield. When he got the boy to shore, he and two bystanders performed CPR until medical crews arrived to take the boy to a hospital. Fortunately, they still had cell service at the reservoir, Donnell said.

On Tuesday, Donnell said he was thankful he found the boy, again emphasizing that he knew he couldn’t just leave him in the truck.

“I believe God put me there for a reason, so I believe it was right place, right time. That I had the training, the experience, I was a great swimmer, to be able to go down and dive down there six or seven times. I mean, I’ll be honest, I was scared. There was one time I couldn’t get out of the truck, I couldn’t find the exit. But I did,” he said. “My deepest prayer is that he survives. That’s all I want.”

The investigation into why the truck rolled into the water continued Tuesday. The boy’s father believes he had the truck in park, Donnell said. But the Summit County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday stated that after the truck was pulled out of the water, it was discovered that the vehicle was in neutral, the key was in the ignition and the parking brake was not on. Whether the truck was left in neutral or one of the children accidentally bumped it from park to neutral while they were in the vehicle was still being investigated, according to the sheriff’s office.

Contributing: Shelby Lofton


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Pat Reavy is a longtime police and courts reporter. He joined the KSL.com team in 2021 after many years of reporting for the Deseret News

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