A Lowell, Ark., man narrowly escaped death by drowning May 11 because of the quick actions of an Oklahoma Game Warden who was in the right place at the right time.
The man in his late 30s was swimming with a friend at Flint Creek Water Park, about five miles west of the Oklahoma state line along U.S. 412, said Game Warden Riley Willman, based in Delaware County. Willman was on the way to another location when he decided to pull off the highway to check for angler compliance at the recreation area. When Riley approached the creek, he heard people yelling from the opposite bank.
“I heard them screaming, ‘Help, police, call 911! Someone’s drowning!’ … And I saw that they were pointing to this low-water dam.” The creek was full and flowing quickly due to heavy rain in the area the previous day.
Willman said he jumped into the fast-flowing creek and made his way into the tailwaters swirling below the dam. Another man, who was also in the water, said his best friend had jumped into the water below the dam and had been sucked under by the vortex created by the water tumbling over the dam. The victim had been underwater several minutes.
Willman swam to the edge of the vortex but was unable to locate the victim right away.
“Luckily, he popped up at the right time where I could grab him,” Willman said. “When you get sucked into a vortex, it’s kind of like a spin cycle in a washing machine. It kicked him out at just the right moment.”
The rescuers pulled the 200-pound-plus victim to the bank, and Willman checked the victim’s status. “He had blue lips, no pulse. He was dead at that point.”
Willman began CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), and after about 30 seconds, he was able to feel a weak pulse. He rolled the victim on his side to expel water, but the victim’s pulse faded again. Willman said he continued CPR for five or six rounds, and finally the man’s pulse returned and became stronger.
Emergency medical personnel arrived and took the victim to a Siloam Springs, Ark., hospital. A hospital spokeswoman said the man was discharged the following day.
“He was dead, which is the crazy thing to me,” Willman said. “We will always try to render aid, even when things don't look good. You just fall back on your training. You don’t really have time to think.”
Game Warden Lt. Joe Alexander, one of Willman’s supervisors in District 1, said the state’s Game Wardens often find themselves in harm’s way to protect residents and visitors to Oklahoma. “And Warden Willman is certainly no exception. His quick action and determination saved this man’s life.
“We are extremely proud of his heroic actions, risking his own life to save another,” Alexander said.
Willman brushed aside being labeled as a hero in this situation. “It was just 100 percent that I was doing my job.”
A native of Owasso, Willman has served as a Game Warden in Delaware County since August 2019. He spent the previous four years working as an intern and a biologist aide with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Game Wardens are public servants sworn to protect wildlife and the public's interests in the outdoors. They are among the most widely recognized members of the state’s wildlife conservation team. ODWC employs more than 100 wardens, dispersed among eight law enforcement districts statewide. All Game Wardens are state-certified peace officers, allowing them to enforce all state laws, and all are commissioned federal game wardens, allowing them to enforce Lacey Act provisions as well.