Mom who nearly drowned in Detroit River thanks rescuers

Ethel Woodger had a chance to thank the Detroit police, fire and medical officers who saved her life in April

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — This time, Ethel Woodger got to wrap her hands around Detroit Police Officer Brian Gadwell.

The two locked in an embrace as Woodger thanked Gadwell and dozens of Detroit police, fire and medics gathered in Mayor Mike Duggan’s office Tuesday morning.

“I just want to thank everybody — everybody that participated in rescuing me, especially the arms because those arms are angels’ arms,”said Woodger, referring to the arms of Gadwell, who helped rescue her from the Detroit River on April 17 after she fell in.

Pregnant at the time, her son was safely delivered by C-section soon after she was pulled from the water and rushed to the hospital that night.

“I’m so grateful and blessed to have all of you good Samaritans and good police officers, firefighters and boat captains,” she said. “Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I appreciate everything you guys did.”

The 34-year-old Detroiter was fishing when she fell into the Detroit River. It was around 10 p.m. when retired Detroiter Jeff Calloway, who was fishing about a block away, felt he should check on the woman he spotted earlier.

“I got that inner spirit, that voice that said, ‘Don’t leave until you make sure that sister is out of this park because the park was actually closed,” said Calloway, 64.

He noticed her car was still running with music playing, but she wasn’t in it. So he walked over to her fishing spot.

“I could hear the water, and I said to myself, ‘Oh lord, don’t allow the sister to be in the water,’” he recalled. “And so I went down a little farther because it was dark. I looked over the side and looked her right in the face.”

Calloway told her to hold on, and he ran back to the parking lot to shout to a few people there to call 911. He then threw her a branch to grab onto, but Woodger was losing arm strength in the freezing water. So he tossed her his coat, and she bit it with her teeth to hang on.

Officers Gadwell and Steven Rauser arrived as Woodger started to lose hold of the coat.

“When she started going under at that point, I had to jump in, and it was cold,” Gadwell said. “Before that night, I used to think I could swim in that water. I’ll never say that again.”

Gadwell said he wrapped his legs around Woodger and grabbed onto a piece of rebar sticking out of the seawall. His legs then turned numb from the cold, and he started to slip.

“That’s when I looked at my partner. I was like, ‘I’m going in. I can’t hang on no more,’” he said. “He jumped in and saved me, so he’s my arms.”

Gadwell said he’s been in shootings and endured other harrowing incidents on duty, but nothing compared to that moment.

“That was the most scariest thing I've ever been in my life. For about a minute and a half, I was like, ‘I’m going to die as I held onto you,’ ” said Gadwell, turning to Woodger sitting next to him.

She responded: “I was just so thankful your arms came around me, like an angel’s arms.”

Then Gadwell prompted a bit of laughter in the room, by adding: “Not to be funny or nothing, but at the end of this whole thing, the only thing I could keep thinking of was the end of ‘Titanic’ when Leonardo DiCaprio ... was going under.”

Medic Chris Ward also arrived on scene and jumped in the water with the trio to help. Luckily, Ryan Gazdecki, captain of the J.W. Westcott boat, saw the struggle in the water and drew near to toss a life preserver to them.

Ward said he got Woodger’s head and arms in the preserver, and the captain was able to pull everyone over to the boat and out of the water.

All were rushed to Detroit Receiving Hospital and treated for hypothermia. Woodger was then taken to Hutzel Women’s Hopsital where she delivered a healthy boy named Ejean.

“We have two lives now in the city of Detroit because of the men and women who helped,” Duggan said at the press conference.

Duggan said he held the presser because first responders aren't recognized enough for their “acts of heroism that go in in this city every day.”

“Some are so extraordinary, they capture our imagination, and we want to take the time to say thank you,” he said.

In light of the incident, Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones said floatation devices have been ordered for all river-based companies.

“This will never happen again once we get the training and the equipment issued,” he said.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig also said he will issue life-saving medals for the officers’ heroic efforts.

“That’s the least we can do …,” he said. “This is a collective effort. So absolutely, we’re going to honor them in a very public ceremony.”

At the event Tuesday, officers with the 4th Precinct surprised Woodger with baby gifts, including a car seat, clothes and a blanket.

Humbled and grateful, Woodger said Ejean and her two other children were the only people she was thinking about as she battled for her life that night.

“I couldn’t leave the kids with no mother. I just lost my mom,” she said. “So there was no way I was going to let them lose theirs.”

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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg