By Peter Tormey
HAVASU CREEK, Ariz. – Gonzaga nursing student Maggie Clark and accounting student Julia Biemann have a whale of a story to tell about what they did on summer vacation when they return to Gonzaga classes this fall. The friends saved a man from drowning in whirlpools churning beneath 200-foot Mooney Falls on Havasu Creek, a Colorado River tributary in the Grand Canyon some 120 miles northwest of Flagstaff.
Michael Morris, who lives in California, newly appreciates Gonzaga since two Zags saved his life May 20.
The young women were with Morris’ party of eight that hiked 11 miles into Havasu campground the day before and were having fun exploring before they descended to Mooney Falls’ base that fateful day. Later, at about 3 p.m., Morris was swimming 30-40 feet from the waterfall when a reverse current tossed him against a rock wall like a gorilla throws a banana peel.
“For about 10-15 minutes, I was hanging on to the wall by my fingers struggling to inch away from the waterfall,” Morris said. “Finally realizing that help or a rope wasn’t likely coming soon, and not wanting to run out of energy hanging on, I tried a back dive that stuck me in the current and shot me back to the edge of the waterfall, but not near any handholds.”
Morris, unconscious after the fall, was later told he disappeared under the turbulence for 1-2 minutes before being ejected twice. The first time, several teenagers tried to rescue him but became stuck in the current. Clark, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing in May 2012, saw that Morris was “completely blue.” Clark knew he was not breathing and needed CPR. Biemann, Clark, Morris’ daughter and the teens worked frantically and pulled Morris ashore in time for him to be resuscitated.
“It was then that I and the teenage lifeguard simultaneously performed CPR and were able to bring him back,” Clark said. “I am still amazed how calmly and readily I was able to respond to the whole incident.”
“They were able to revive me after several minutes,” Morris said. Once Morris was safely ashore, Biemann, a high-school sprinter, scrambled up the near-vertical, 200-foot rock face to the canyontop and ran nearly 2 miles – sporting only a bikini and water shoes – to the ranger station for aid. Biemann said her rock-climbing training at Gonzaga proved most helpful.
“I had to climb a 200-foot face that had several risky elements, if done with speed, then run two miles to town,” she said. “My mother said I looked like a squirrel climbing a tree.” Biemann was told she “caused quite a stir sprinting past campsites in my bikini all the way to the ranger station.” In one of many strokes of good fortune that day, the rescue pilot on duty was the only one of several pilots willing to fly into the narrow gorge to perform a rescue.
“There were a lot of fortunate occurrences all lining up,” said Biemann who will graduate in May (2012) with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and plans to start a business management career.
“After two helicopter rides and two nights in the hospital in Flagstaff, and a long drive home, I feel great and have a new appreciation for every moment of life,” said Morris, who said he is friends with several Gonzaga alumni. “I appreciate these outstanding heroic students at your wonderful University,” he said. “Go Zags!”
Neither student had saved someone’s life before. Clark’s appreciation for her education has grown since the incident.
“Had it not been for me entering the nursing program, I would not have taken the required CPR class that gave me the skills to resuscitate Mr. Morris,” Clark said. “That, coupled with the mindset and quick-thinking I’ve learned through the nursing program were vital components to the fast response we were able to give.”
Doctors explained to Biemann that teamwork, immediate care and swift rescue saved Morris, who spent several days hospitalized. People revived from drowning can remain in grave danger until stabilized, which can take hours, days, months or longer — each situation is different.
“This experience proved to me that I can be calm and think straight in stressful and dire situations,” Biemann said.
While the Zags are thrilled to have saved Morris’ life, they are unsure if the term “heroes” fits.
“Are we heroes? Maybe,” Clark said. “Rather, I consider it more of a miracle that every person was trained and present at the right place and the right time, and we were able to work as a team to bring this man back to life.”