Floating along the Boise River is a favorite local pastime. The river’s “Greenbelt” was developed into a multiuse recreation area with walking paths, benches and picnic tables, along with tube rentals and “put-in” and “take-out” areas for river adventurers.
Thousands of guests frequent the waters each year.
It was the perfect spot for Lead TSA Officer Gavin Gard to invite his girlfriend’s grandparents, Tom and Mary Morrell, and some family for a relaxing day of floating on the river.
The weather was perfect; the early summer skies were azure blue and the sun brilliant. But it turned out the water was not for the faint of heart.
“The water was like 52 degrees that day,” remembered Gard. “It was absolutely freezing.”
The Boise River is a snow-fed tributary that starts high in the Sawtooth Range mountains and eventually drains into the Snake River.
Unaware of any dangers lying ahead, Gard and his girlfriend, Abagail, set out for a fun day.
After the group rented their tubes, the floating adventure began. Right away, there were signs the trip might be more than they bargained for. The effort and activity of tubing/river running in combination with the cold water temperature was especially hard on Mary.
The river currents threatened to pull the group apart in different stages. Small islands, unseen obstacles and unexpected rough ripples, along with the energy needed to keep a tube moving in the right direction, all combined into a stressful situation. By the end of the trip, the group became separated.
Gard and Abigail were first to exit at the designated take-out area, where signs reminded floaters this is the last place to dock before passing under a bridge and into some rapids.
The two sat on the bridge and waited for the rest of the group to arrive.
Off in the distance, Gard saw a man coming down the river holding an empty tube. As the person got closer, it was obvious the man was unable to navigate the waters and couldn’t stop at the last exit.
“He just completely blows past the last exit (before the dam) and keeps on going,” said Gard. “I could see him panicking and helpless, so I dove in and swam out to him.”
The man turned out to be Tom, holding onto Mary’s empty tube.
Cold and disoriented, Tom couldn’t recall where or how he and Mary became separated. When they first lost each other, he waited in the water with her tube but eventually decided to complete the float.
When asked where they separated, Tom recalled he last saw Mary near the Boise State stadium, nearly two miles upstream.
Leaving Abigail to help Tom recover, Gard and Abagail’s uncle, Peter, ran the path along the river, searching the shoreline for Mary and shouting out to passing rafters asking if they had seen an older woman. Finally, a group said they saw someone standing in the water at about mile marker 2.
The pair raced back down the river, frantically searching and becoming separated in the process.
Gard made it back to Abagail after an hour of futile searching, and they became desperate to find Mary.
“I grabbed a tube and ran all the way back to the starting point [two miles on foot] and started to float the river again,” Gard said.
His efforts paid off, and he found Peter and Mary stranded on a little island in the river, surrounded by raging rapids. Peter had swum to Mary, but after nearly three hours in and out of the cold water, they couldn’t navigate the rolling rapids to make it to shore.
Taking his tube, Gard entered the river upstream and floated back downstream to the stranded pair. Gard gave his tube to Peter and his shoes to Mary after she lost hers in the river. Together, they struggled through the rapids into shallow waters where they could finally get to shore.
The group reunited at the bridge and recounted the exhausting past five hours. When Mary was pulled from her tube, she was pushed under the rapids but somehow managed to grab nearby tree branches. A family floating by told her to let go and drift to the island where she was eventually found.
When the group was finally about to leave the park, Gard heard a young voice crying out for help.
Scanning the river, he spotted a 10-year-old girl with no tube hanging onto a tree branch, screaming for help. Still barefoot, Gard ran down the steep, rocky embankment into the river. He grabbed the child and carried her ashore.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Gard recalled of his third rescue. “I was pretty burnt out with all that running, and it was just exhausting, emotionally and physically. I was just glad I was there at the right time and could help, but I was just tired.”
Back home, Star, Idaho, Mayor Trevor Chadwick awarded Gard the Good Star Citizenship Certificate for his unselfish efforts and disregard for his own safety.
Idaho TSA Federal Security Director Andy Coose praised Gard, saying, “Gavin is one of those guys who meets the definition of ‘Model Officer’ in every way. He is dependable, courteous, polite, humble, respectful, looks professional in his uniform and contributes positively to the team’s success every day at Boise International Airport. I honestly can’t say enough about a young man who at the age of 20 carries himself so well and maintains such a high standard for himself. He says he would like to be a Navy SEAL one day, and I don’t doubt that he is a person who could achieve such a lofty goal. He just makes everyone around him better.”
By Wayne Carey, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs