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It was nothing short of a miracle.
After almost two hours of being stranded on a large debris pile in the middle of the Catawba River with his pit bull, a five-year-old Lancaster boy was rescued below the coffer dam at Fishing Creek Reservoir (Nitrolee dam) near the Tom Mangum Memorial Bridge about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 22.
A swift water rescue team, which included Lancaster Fire Department firefighters David Melton and Danny “Buckshot” Deese, pulled the youngster to safety after spotting him some 30 minutes earlier with a thermal imaging camera that tracked the boy’s body heat.
“It was a relief to find him,” said Melton, a veteran firefighter of 12 years. “He was crying and talking to us, which was a good sign, and I could tell he was scared. Heck, given the circumstances, anybody would be.
“I know when I told him to hold onto me, he took it serious,” Melton said.
Shouts of excitement were heard along the bridge once news of the child’s rescue was relayed.
The incident had rescue workers from various local agencies in multiple counties rushing to the area just after 5:30 p.m.
Jennifer Lancaster, of Chester, was on her way home from work at the S.C. Heart Center in Camden when she turned off S.C. 97 and onto the bridge.
Lancaster, a nurse, said she saw a man waving people down and she stopped.
She said the man was wet and his pants were hanging down. The man, later identified as Dennis Dixon of Lancaster, told her that his five-year-old son was on the rocks. Lancaster immediately called 911. She said Dixon, who appeared to be in shock, looked to be in his 20s. She said he told her his son’s name was Connor.
It is unclear why Dixon and his son were on the coffer dam. One person said they heard the two were picking up bottles in the old river bed.
The coffer dam is about three feet wide.
Duke Energy controls the Fishing Creek Hydro Station generators from a central office in Charlotte.
When the generators started, water began to spill over the dam that was built to divert water into the original river bed. No one was at the Great Falls station, but it was being monitored by cameras. An audible horn was sounded and a visible light signal was activated when water was about to be released.
Duke has no trespassing signs in the area of the coffer dam.
Dixon was able to swim to shore and made his way to the bridge. He left his son and dog on a rock.
Ricky Williford of Great Falls also saw Dixon on the bridge.
“You could tell he was upset,” Williford said.
Williford said he could not see the child, but could hear him yelling from the canal side of the bridge.
At the time, temperatures were in the upper 30s but dropped quickly as the sun went down.
Agencies at the scene included Chester County Emergency Management, Great Falls Rescue Squad, Great Falls Fire Department, Lancaster County Emergency Management, Lancaster County EMS, Lancaster County Rescue Squad, Lancaster County Fire Service, as well and members of Lancaster Fire Department and Pleasant Valley Fire Department. Police, fire and rescue units from Fort Lawn, Fairfield County, and the S.C. Department of Natural Resource officers also responded to aid with the rescue effort.
Great Falls Fire Chief David Galloway said he was almost positive he had a visual of the child before the sun went down.
Chester County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Wendy Glenn used her police car loud speaker to call out to Connor. She told him he was going to be alright, and that help was on the way.
Glenn said she knows she’s not supposed to get emotionally involved but when a child is involved, she can’t help but feel the tugging of her heart.
Within minutes, a swift water team entered the water in a boat and began to search along the coffer dam. About 7 p.m., police radio transmissions confirmed the child had been spotted with his dog by his side.
Melton said he was grateful to have the thermal imaging camera at his disposal.
“Technically, that’s how we found him,” he said. “That’s a good testimony to a piece of equipment that paid for itself right then and there.”
Lancaster and Williford stayed on the bridge until they knew the child had been pulled from the dangerous situation. Both said they couldn’t leave until they knew he was safe.
A medical helicopter was waiting at the Belltown Volunteer Fire Department, waiting to fly the child to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
A CMC Media Relations Department spokeswoman said Thursday morning that Connor Dixon had been discharged.
His dad, cold and shivering, had already been taken to the emergency room at Springs Memorial Hospital for treatment.
A Springs Memorial Hospital spokeswoman said Thursday, Jan. 23, that Dennis Dixon was treated and released.
Diesel, the dog, followed the child to the back of the ambulance.
The child’s mother, said to be seven months pregnant, waited on a road on the other side of the bridge as medical personnel carried her child to a waiting ambulance.
Melton said the key to the entire rescue operation was good communication between personnel from the various agencies.
“Everybody came together and performed well when the stuff hit the fan,” he said.
Melton said he slept well Wednesday night.
“I was tired, but the first thing I did when I got home was hug my wife and that baby in her belly,” he said. “Our first child is due in June.”
“You know, most of the time we get these kind of calls, it’s too late and it’s the worst case scenario,” Melton said. “I’m just grateful everybody is OK.”
Editor’s note: Greg Summers, copy editor of The Lancaster News, contributed to this story.