If Deputy Tanner Cox had not been patrolling Honeysuckle Boat Launch on Hayden Lake Thursday night, a 91-year-old man who drove into the chilly water may not have survived.
“I’ve sat down there 100, 150 times and never expected a vehicle to actually go into the water,” Cox told reporters and some 40 others, about half of them Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office personnel, at a ceremony celebrating the rescue on Friday. “And then it did right in front of me. So it caught me off guard, and I had to almost double take at first to make sure that it was a vehicle that went into the water.”
Cox said he saw the driver, who turned out to be Henry Scheller, around 10 p.m. slowly driving through the parking lot toward the boat launch when he suddenly picked up speed and went straight into the lake, “which I didn’t believe actually happened at first,” he said.
Cox called for backup, with deputies Cody Ragan and Zach Perry arriving minutes later, according to a sheriff’s office news release.
The three deputies jumped into the water, got the driver’s side door open and helped the man out of the truck before it sunk, the sheriff’s office said.
Scheller was transported to Kootenai Health for hypothermia. An investigation determined Scheller was confused and lost when he drove into the water, the sheriff’s office said.
“It was a good ending to a bad situation,” Cox said.
Cox said Scheller was in shock when he first contacted him in the water. He said he was not responding to his commands to open the door or window, adding that he had a dazed look on his face and appeared to be confused.
Ragan, a member of the sheriff’s office Dive Rescue Team, said the water was about 37 degrees. The air temperature was 21, said Sgt. Justin Arts, another member of the Dive Rescue Team.
Ragan said the truck was starting to submerge when the door opened. At that point, he said he grabbed Scheller and pulled him out of the truck. The deputies then dragged Scheller to shore.
Cox told The Spokesman-Review Scheller was in the water for 3 to 4 minutes.
Perry said he misunderstood the radio traffic as he was driving to the beach. He said he thought there were two people inside the truck and that one had already escaped, and deputies were trying to get the second occupant out.
Arts said deputies were waist deep at first, but when the truck started going deeper underwater, the situation became even more dangerous and the deputies decided to pull Scheller out.
“As the truck started to roll away and as the window to save him got shorter, they all jumped in, which is admirable, to say the least,” Arts said.
He said their actions saved Scheller’s life, especially given the man’s age and the frigid water and air temperatures.
Arts said these incidents happen all the time, and unfortunately, the Dive Rescue Team has recovered a lot of bodies out of the water.
“Had they not been there, I believe with my whole heart that that would have been the case, but because they were there, he’s up and with his family,” Arts said.
The deputies said they would have taken the same actions if the situation played out again.
“We all know there’s calculated risks in our job, and that goes to every call we go to,” Ragan said.
“I guess it’s humbling,” he said. “We don’t do this to be recognized as heroes. None of us do this job for that, so I guess for me, it’s overwhelming. It’s unexpected.”
According to a 2018 Spokesman-Review story, there have been at least 11 deaths at the boat launch since 1995.
The sheriff’s office said at the time that a 2018 vehicle crash into Hayden Lake, which took the life of 34-year-old Christopher Lancaster, was the third time a vehicle went into the Honeysuckle Beach boat launch since 2011. Alcohol was a factor in the other two crashes, one of which resulted in a fatality.
In 2011, 34-year-old Jennifer M. Gonzalez died when she drove into the boat launch.
In April 2006, two women were killed and a male passenger escaped through a window.
The City of Hayden made safety changes to Honeysuckle Beach in 2007, the 2018 story said. The city installed several warning and stop signs, a concrete island, and speed limits that go from 25 mph, 15 and then to 5 mph.
Drivers are also directed to turn left to a parking lot near a “Do Not Enter” sign once they’re nearing the boat launch from Honeysuckle Road.
Cox noted the city’s improvements, but he said in Thursday’s case, Scheller was lost and did not see the various signs designed to protect drivers. Cox said he plans on connecting with Scheller in the next couple of days.
“He wouldn’t have made it without your assistance,” Hayden Mayor Steve Griffitts said.
S-R reporter Emma Epperly contributed to this article.
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