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Canyon Ferry residents recount water rescue

Boat sinks at Canyon Ferry Lake during storm
Posted at 4:27 PM, Jul 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-08 21:29:36-04

HELENA — On Wednesday afternoon, a thunderstorm rolled over Canyon Ferry Lake and caused a boat that was carrying six passengers to sink.

Of the six passengers, one was able to swim to shore, while the other five were stranded in the water. Gene Mitchell, a former sheriff's deputy in the Billings area who's lived on the lake for over two decades said his wife noticed something was wrong as the storm was going on.

"I was reading a book and my wife hollered at me that there's something out there in the middle of the lake by the little island. I got up and got the binoculars. And yeah, there's just a point of a boat sticking up out of the water with a guy hanging on to it," said Mitchell.

Mitchell, unsure of what to do, made his way over to Joe Cardenas' house to alert him to the situation. Shortly thereafter, Cardenas sprang into action.

"It was pretty rough out here. So, I just made the decision to run out there and try to get him out of the water," said Cardenas as he recounted seeing the man clinging to the boat. "I wouldn't have even known and if Gene hadn't come over and told me they were out there."

Though the storm had mostly passed by the time Cardenas made his way out towards the boat, he said the water was still tough to navigate and made for an interesting rescue attempt.

"It was still pretty rough and there was a pretty strong north wind. So it was more of manage trying to figure out how to manage the boat when I got close to them. So I could pick them up and not run over them or not do more damage than I was trying to prevent," said Cardenas.

Cardenas was able to pick up five of the six passengers from the water, with the sixth being able to swim to shore. However, in that moment, Cardenas said no one knew that the sixth person had made their way to safety already.

"We went over and got them and there's one person missing. And that's probably, you know, obviously, there was a lot of frightened people. But there was a point where I think everybody thought the other person was lost," said Cardenas. "Fortunately she had swam to the beach. She was the only one that made it to the beach, and she was waiting. So it worked out really well. As good of an ending as you could have had, besides losing the boat and all the rest of it."

When asked what was his thought process was going into the situation where he could have also found himself in jeopardy, Cardenas, a former navy pilot of over a decade, said he didn't really think about it, he just wanted to help.

"If I was just going out trying to save a boat or something like that. I'd think pretty hard about it. But trying to save somebody, or in this case, multiple people's lives. I don't think that takes a lot of thought," said Cardenas. "I have the ability and the tools to do it, so I thought it was well worth the risk."

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