FAIRMONT - Two 14-year-old girls were saved from nearly drowning Thursday afternoon by a Fairmont police officer and police department secretary, who raced down a steep wooden flight of stairs and jumped into the water to rescue them.
The girls, who were visiting from out of town, were boating alone without life jackets on Lake Sisseton at about 1 p.m. Thursday when their canoe tipped.
A man at Sylvania Park at the time saw the girls in the water far from their boat and called 911. The girls were between Sylvania and Wards parks, just down the steps from the Law Enforcement Center.
Police Lt. Del Ellis was near Sylvania Park when the call came in. He pulled in and radioed the location of the girls, which was difficult to discern because there are few landmarks along that edge of the lake, just a long border of trees.
Police department secretary Tegan Quade and two others from the police department office realized the girls were very close to the Law Enforcement Center where they work. They ran outside, where they could hear one of the girls yelling, "Help! Help us! She's drowning! We're down here!" They ran through the parking lot and down the 60 or so steps that lead to a dock just below their building.
"They were struggling," said Quade, of the two girls, who were about 50-75 yards out from the shore.
Meanwhile, Bleess heard about the girls in distress over his squad car radio, as he was delivering a prisoner to the Law Enforcement Center. When he got out of his car, he could hear the girl screaming. Realizing how close they were, he jumped over the railing near the stairs and raced down them, nearly falling down the last flight.
Bleess could only see the hands and the top of the head of one of the girls, her face surfacing every 4 or 5 seconds - she was very close to going under for good.
The other girl was panicking, struggling to tread water and stay near her friend.
Bleess quickly took off his vest, gun belt and shirt. Quade said, "I can swim, should I come?"
"Let's go," Bleess answered, and the two jumped off the dock and into the water.
Quade reached the girl who was almost drowning first, and Bleess reached the other girl, who was staying afloat but still panicking. They made the girls lay on their backs in the water, grabbed them under their arms, and swimming on their backs themselves, the two rescuers pulled the girls to safety.
Meanwhile, Fairmont Detective Corey Klanderud, a collegiate swimmer, was standing on the steps with his shoes kicked off in case he was needed, and there were sheriff's officers and fire fighters in Sylvania and Wards parks, some getting ready to launch a boat.
As Bleess and Quade recounted the event Thursday evening for a reporter, Quade said she was still very emotional about it.
"I'm very, very grateful they're OK," she said.
"I called my Mom to thank her for making me take swimming lessons," Bleess said.
Fairmont Police Chief Greg Brolsma said he was proud of the work the two did.
He noted his officers do great work every day, but it's not often a secretary gets to be part of a rescue: "It's fortunate it happened where it did, and they took it upon themselves to look."
Brolsma said the emergency was an example of how calls to the police with scattered information sometimes sidetracks rescue efforts and takes up valuable time.
The girls were examined by Gold Cross paramedics, who were waiting in the Law Enforcement Center parking lot and found to be OK. They were released to the mother of one of the girls.
Brolsma called Quade and Bleess heroes, but they said they didn't have any other option.
"When you hear that voice (calling for help), you know somebody's on the brink," Bleess said. "We'll always remember that voice."