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Inconceivable choices: Wahpeton teen saved his family from drowning

The Kieffer family of Wahpeton survived a near drowning experience Saturday, July 5 at the Pomme de Terre River near Morris, Minn. Above are Brooke, back, Peyton, front left, Aaron and their hero, Gunnar Kieffer. Gunnar got himself out of the river’s turbulence and then saved his younger brother and father. (Carrie McDermott/Wahpeton Daily News)

WAHPETON – One Wahpeton teen faced two inconceivable choices – he could help his brother, or try and swim out to save his father. In the blink of an eye, a quiet afternoon turned into a life-threatening rescue.

Aaron Kieffer, Wahpeton, and his two sons, Gunnar, 13, and Peyton, 12, were enjoying the Pomme de Terre River near Morris, Minn., last Saturday for a hot and lazy afternoon. The three were spending the long holiday weekend with Aaron’s parents and decided to cool off by the river. Aaron was spending the time trying to coax a fish to bite from the banks of the river, while Gunnar and Peyton were swimming near the dam.

Tragedy struck in an instant and through sheer courage and determination, all three Kieffers lived to tell their story. It was a close call though and all three thank their lucky stars. More specifically, for two of the Kieffers, it is Gunnar they thank for charging into the turbulence and saving their lives.

Gunnar and Peyton were swimming in an area they’ve swum before, but this year the high water and fast-flowing river turned their swim into a near-drowning episode.

Gunnar and Peyton were swimming in an area they’ve swum before, but this year the high water and fast-flowing river turned their swim into a near-drowning episode.

Most of the dam was submerged under floodwater. Gunnar said he was swimming a little further out when he saw Peyton lose his footing on the dam and hang by his fingertips from the structure. Peyton’s feet were dangling about 12 feet over the surging water below with nothing but a gushing river between Gunnar and his brother.

“Peyton was reaching out and I grabbed him. I had a hold of his hand when the current swept us both over the side,” he said.

The two fell into what their dad calls about a three-foot concrete box, a structure on the bottom of the dam. The turbulence was like a washing machine, churning and tumbling their little bodies around and around. Neither boy knew which way was up. Gunnar said the water was well over their heads. Every time he could touch the ground to push up for air, his younger brother’s body kept knocking him off his feet.

“It felt like I was under the water forever,” Gunnar said. “While I was under I was praying, ‘Please Lord, help me get out of this …’”

One second, Gunnar was trapped in the swirling water and the next, he was free of the river’s suction and gulping in big breaths of air. The roar of the river drowned out much of Gunnar’s yells for help, but Aaron caught the urgency and came running. He dove into the water without a second’s thought and began searching for Peyton.

Even though Gunnar was out of the river’s trap, Peyton was still under water. Aaron dove into the same three-foot box that had trapped the boys and quickly realized Peyton wasn’t there. By some miracle, Peyton’s body was floating just out of reach of where Gunnar now stood in the water. The older brother grabbed his sibling and dragged him onto the riverbank.

This was when Gunnar faced a difficult decision. As he watched, his father was swept under the water. According to Aaron, there was only one choice Gunnar had, to get Peyton breathing again.

“His lips were blue and he wasn’t breathing,” Gunnar said, “so I began to give him CPR.”

The teen had seen the rescue technique on TV and immediately began to pump his brother’s chest and breathe for him. Peyton came to by “puking out a bunch of river water,” Gunnar said. With his brother safely breathing on his own, The teen jumped back into the river to rescue his father.

While Gunnar was performing CPR on the Pomme de Terre riverbank, Aaron was tumbling around in the strong current, fighting for his life. He was only able to push up for five or six times for breaths of air before his strength gave out, he said. The last time he went under, Aaron conceded the fact he was going to die.

By the time Gunnar swam out to help him, all he found was Aaron’s foot sticking out of the turbulence. He struggled and pulled, got his dad’s body turned around, he said, gripped Aaron’s shoulders and finally succeeded in pulling him out of the grip of the raging river. As he pulled him to shore, Gunnar saw Peyton was standing and although weak from his own ordeal, Peyton jumped back into the river and helped pull his father to the bank.

Aaron wasn’t breathing and neither of the boys could fully lift their father’s body free of the water. While Peyton held the top part of Aaron’s body out of the water, Gunnar grabbed the truck keys and made a mad dash to the neighboring campground, seeking help.

Campers called 9-1-1 and two girls jumped into the truck and drove Gunnar back to the riverbank.

Within seconds, emergency responders had arrived on the scene to find Aaron wasn’t breathing and his heart had stopped beating. They resuscitated him by using a defibrillator and rushed both Aaron and Peyton to the hospital. Peyton was held overnight for observation, while Aaron was rushed to a St. Cloud hospital.

Aaron has no memory of the near drowning. He remembers waking up in the hospital, but nothing else of the events beforehand. In the few days since the near disaster, all three Kieffers have recovered. Aaron is back at work as an electrician for Scott’s Electric, but is taking antibiotics to ward off infection.

For Brooke Kieffer, wife and mother to the three, it was a terrifying moment when Aaron’s mother, Jan Kieffer, called to tell her of the ordeal.

“I thought they had died,” she said with a shudder. “I didn’t know how they were.”

As for the quick thinking of her 13-year-old son, “I think he is an angel,” she said. “When we looked down at the river afterwards, I couldn’t believe anyone got out of it. The water was that deep.”

For one grateful father, this was a life lesson his family learned the hard way. The near drowning was a tragedy and miracle all together, he said.

“I just know God was with us that day,” Aaron said. “My boy acted like a superhero and used the gifts that God gave him. He did everything in the order that needed to be done.”

Aaron said Gunnar had to get Peyton breathing again before he jumped into the river to save his father, otherwise two lives could have been lost. It took discipline and courage, Aaron said, for Gunnar to have the presence of mind to help his brother first and his father, second.

Although the family talks about their experience, it isn’t easy to share their story. One moment Aaron said he is grateful all three survived the river, but the next he is angry his children were foolish enough to swim so close to the dam. In a normal year, the part of the river the boys were swimming is a common place for residents to play, he said. In his own youth, Aaron said he and his friends used to slide down those falls.

Aaron’s advice to others is to stay away from dams, especially when the flood waters are so high.

“In a matter of moments I could have lost two of my sons and my own life,” he said.

This perspective is called hindsight, but Gunnar said he, too, learned a valuable lesson.

“I learned not to swim by a dam,” he said.

Truer words were never spoken.