Pulling a Rescue Out of a Recovery

Fort Worth District, USACE
Published July 11, 2024

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District Park Rangers Ryley Rosenbusch, left, and Alex Klepac rescued a teenager at Stillhouse Hollow Lake after the teen attempted to swim to an island 1,000 yards from the shore without a life jacket. They found the teen clinging to a semi-submerged piece of driftwood. The teen was badly sunburned and completely exhausted from his ordeal. But overall, the teen was none the worse for wear.

Stillhouse Hollow Lake

A 1,000-yard swim to an island is no walk in the park. For a young teen at Stillhouse Hollow Lake it became an ordeal. Sitting off Outlook Park, the island was a temptation to the young man. That temptation led to lifesaving efforts by two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Fort Worth District Park Rangers as the teen attempted the swim the channel without a life jacket.

Life Jacket Loaner Station

Life jacket loaner stations, like the one pictured, are in multiple locations across Stillhouse Hollow Lake. Many of the life jackets are donated by organizations like the LV Project which promote water safety. “A life jacket is going to be there to help you stay above water in the event something unexpected happens when you're out there swimming,” said Alex Klepac, a ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Fort Worth District.

It was a beautiful Texas summer day in June, with the sun shining brightly and waves crashing gently against the shore of Stillhouse Hollow Lake. A group of friends decided to beat the heat with a mid-day swim and entered one of the many parks closed due to excessive flood waters.

Among the swimmers in the water was a teenager with a goal in mind, an island just a little over 1,000 yards away. He believed he was a strong swimmer and thought it would be a good challenge. But on this particular day, the lake had other ideas as the young man entered the water without a life vest and began swimming.

“There are so many factors that go into swimming safety and being safe on the water. Wearing a life jacket helps a lot,” said Alex Klepac, a ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Fort Worth District assigned to Stillhouse Hollow Lake. “A life jacket is going to be there to help you stay above water in the event something unexpected happens when you're out there swimming.”

As the young man fought against the current, wind and waves to reach his goal, exhaustion started to set in, and he began to tread water to conserve energy. He soon realized his goal was out of reach and hoped the winds would push him to shore and the safety of Stillhouse Park which was more than a half mile away.

A group of friends along the shore watched on with building concern. Their friend was no longer swimming, and they could see him bobbing in the water. As the winds picked up, so did the swells and their friend had disappeared from their view. Fearing he had gone under the waves and drowned, they called 911.

“When you get the call, you don't want to assume the worst, but you know that there's a narrow window to where you can actually make a difference and change the possible outcome,” Klepac said. “So, in this case we believed it was a possible drowning. It's an instant adrenaline rush, but we've got to get there and fall back on our training and do what we can, what we're trained to do to try and help.”

But the young man hadn’t succumbed to the elements. Soon after he began to tread water a life-saving piece of driftwood, gathered by the flood-swollen lake, came in to view. He clung to the semi-submerged debris like it was a life ring.

Luckily for the young man, USACE rangers were already on the lake repairing a courtesy dock aboard a barge. Less than 15 minutes after receiving the call of a possible drowning, the rangers were in the area scanning the waters with binoculars.

In a short period, they found the young man, tossed a life ring, and pulled him from the water onto the barge. Although badly sunburned and completely exhausted from his ordeal, he was none the worse for wear.

“As soon as we came around the corner of the island, we saw a bunch of people shouting and pointing, so we knew we were going in the right direction,” said Klepac.

Luck was on the young swimmer’s side that day. Had the driftwood not passed by or had the Corps of Engineers’ rangers not already had a boat in the water, this story could have had an entirely different ending.

Instead of a rescue, the rangers could have been working alongside county and state officials in recovery efforts.

“Never overestimate your abilities when you're in the water,” said Ryley Rosenbusch, the USACE ranger who tossed the life ring to the young man. “Even though the island seemed like it was only a half mile away, when you get in the water it's going to feel like two or three miles away. You're going to get exhausted quickly. If you’re not wearing a life jacket, you're just not helping yourself.”

Editor’s note: This past February, Park Ranger Alex Klepac was named the 2023 Park Ranger of the Year for the Fort Worth District.