2023 Michiganians of the Year: Bringing hope and inspiration to all

Crews recover body of Detroit firefighter who helped save girls from drowning at Belle Isle

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
The Detroit Police continue to search for a missing person along Belle Isle beach on Saturday, August 22, 2020.

Detroit Rescue crews recovered the body of Detroit Fire Sgt. Sivad Johnson, who went missing after he helped save girls from drowning in the Detroit River on Friday night, authorities said.

The Detroit Police Department Dive Team found the body of the 48-year-old father about 1 p.m. Saturday after a six-hour search, said Dave Fornell, deputy commissioner of the Detroit Fire Department.

Despite being off duty at the time of the incident, Johnson's heroic sacrifice will be labeled as a line-of-duty death with the department, Fornell said.

"They're transporting his body to a hospital now with an escort," Fornell said.

The incident occurred Friday when Michigan State Police dispatchers received a call about 9 p.m. from a 10-year-old girl saying she had lost her father, the agency said.

Troopers, state Department of Natural Resources officers and firefighters responded to the scene near the Detroit Yacht Club. 

Sgt. Sivad Johnson

The 26-year veteran of the department and his daughter were walking near the Yacht Club when they heard three young girls screaming for help from the water, Fornell told The Detroit News.

"He's a firefighter, he saw the girls in distress and jumped in. He's done that his entire career," Fornell said. "Something happened, and it's unfortunate to have lost one of our own that way."

Another person and a nearby boat assisted in the rescue. 

"From the civilian we talked to last night, there were a lot of rip currents and the sergeant went out into the water," Fornell said. "One girl was rescued by the civilian and the boat picked up the two other girls."

Detroit police searched for a missing person along Belle Isle beach on Saturday.

The incident took nearly 45 minutes. Only after the children were safe with their parents, Johnson's daughter realized he was missing and called 911, authorities said. 

"It is believed the father may have been dragged underwater by the rip-current and no one noticed," Michigan State Police said.

Johnson's daughter was turned over to her grandfather.

Johnson is the third person to die in the Detroit River this week after Livonia executive Robert Chiles and the Rev. Stephen Rooney's boat capsized on Sunday near Grosse Ile. Both were found during a five-day search by rescue teams.

In 2018, Johnson performed live on stage as part of a Moth Radio Hour, taking listeners behind the scenes of the Detroit Fire Department.

In his 14-minute piece titled "To Bravely Do or Bravely Die," Johnson, who said his father and brother were firefighters, talked about entering a burning home, becoming trapped momentarily and trying to save an elderly woman, who passed away.

"I know we can't save everybody, but we try," Johnson said in the recording.


Twitter: @SarahRahal_