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Little Rock Airman saves woman from drowning

  • Published
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs


“That scream was even more chilling than the water I and my friend were in,” he said.

It was June 25, a normal Saturday of kayaking at the Ouachita River Whitewater Park for U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Colton Lien, 19th Civil Engineer Squadron Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician, and his friends when they witnessed a woman fall out her inner tube into the middle of the river.

“She was with a group of people in approximately 10 tubes,” he said. “All the tubes were tied together, so the river continued to carry them down stream after she fell.”

Lien, who is also a certified canoe instructor, knew that something needed to be done immediately. The woman fell into a suck hole, which is like a whirlpool in the river. Once a swimmer becomes stuck in a suck hole, it is extremely dangerous to be in and difficult to swim out. He and his friends paddled their kayaks toward the fallen woman as they alerted others they passed to get help.

Once they reached her, they noticed that she was spinning. She would go underwater for five to 20-second intervals. Lien, his friends and another paddler who came to help tried for minutes to grab her with a rope, catch her with their paddles and reach for her from the kayaks, but nothing worked.

Eventually, the woman became unconscious.

“I was nervous, but I didn’t want to panic,” Lien said. “Plans A, B, nor C worked. We were about to attempt plan D with hopes that we didn’t have to attempt plan E, which was jumping in there myself and getting her.”

Lien surfed closer to the woman and finally, he bumped her body out of the whirlpool with his kayak. He grabbed her and pulled her body beside a large canoe that one of the paddlers was in. Though there was a small sigh of relief, she was still unconscious.

After moments of deliberation, Lien paddled the woman to shore as one person held her body and two others gave her breaths (because they were unable to do CPR compressions in the water). 

“It felt like forever getting back to the bank, but I think it was actually 10 minutes,” Lien said. “Reaching the bank was the easy part. When we got there, I checked for a pulse; there was none. Other people came to help with giving the woman chest compressions. Within about 15 seconds, she regained consciousness and her pulse.”

Lien stayed with the woman for an additional 15 minutes as she recovered. When the paramedics arrived, they took the woman and continued care. Lien walked away from the crowd for a few minutes to take in what just happened.

“I don’t feel like a hero,” he said. “We did what needed to be done. It was definitely a team effort. We didn’t have time to panic because she didn’t have time for us to panic. We had to move and move fast.”

Lien credits his training as an EOD technician to his fast reaction to the emergency situation. EOD members focus on the protection of personnel and property, with emphasis on personnel first. He leaned on his water safety knowledge and training to quickly assess the situation and lead the others to making the right decisions that ultimately saved a woman’s life.

He has used the publicity from this experience to share the basic water safety tips.

“Even if you are a good swimmer, wear a life jacket in deep water, and don’t paddle alone. Those tips could be the difference between life and death,” he said.