by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JOHN SCHRAG - TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG Gaston Fire Chief Roger Mesenbrink said a trained emergency crew could not have done a better job than members of the Gibson family which included (from left) Evan Gibson and Eric MacLean of Hillsboro and Michelle Rushing of Vancouver, Wash.When Lois and Grant Gibson were raising their large family in Hillsboro back in the 1960s, their eight girls and two boys were often wet.

“We spent a lot of time camping around lakes,” recalled Evan Gibson, who still lives in his hometown with his own family. “We all knew how to swim.”

So, it’s no surprise that when the Gibson family headed to Hagg Lake for a family reunion Saturday, they brought lots of water toys: a jet ski, four kayaks and an inflatable trampoline.

And, given their parent’s modeling of helping others, it makes sense that when they saw trouble in the lake, several family members headed into the water without hesitation.

In one of the most dramatic water rescues in recent Oregon history, members of the Gibson family are being credited with saving the lives of eight children, ages 6 to 13, and possibly, two adult women Saturday afternoon.

News of the rescue spread quickly. The family held a press conference in Gaston on Sunday, and Monday even taped an interview for the “Today” show from Evan Gibson’s living room.

Gaston Fire Chief Roger Mesenbrink, who was the first emergency responder on the scene, just south of Forest Grove, was amazed. “I’ve been doing this more than 40 years and never had I seen anything like this,” he told reporters Sunday at the Gaston fire station. “A trained team would have performed no better in this circumstance. You can call it luck. I call it hard work and paying attention.”

What, the chief was asked, would he call the family members who came to the rescue?

“Heroes,” he said immediately. “It takes a certain kind of person to do that.”

‘They’re drowning!’

About 30 members of the extended Gibson family had gone to Hagg Lake Saturday for a day of grilling and water play in the sun. Eight of the 10 siblings, now with children and grandchildren of their own, made the trip, including Evan Gibson and April MacLean of Hillsboro, Michelle Rushing of Vancouver, Wash., and Lura Kirby of Ashland, Va.

They originally planned to set up at Boat Ramp C, but were worried about access for their dad, who is in a wheelchair (Lois Gibson passed away a year ago).So, they made an impromptu venue change, to the Sain Creek Picnic Area, a popular spot on the west side of the 1,100-acre man-made reservoir, which serves as a regional water supply and recreation area.

Late in the afternoon, after about a third of the family had headed home, and the MacLeans’ son, Eric, figured it was time to join them. As the 27-year-old former Marine headed up from the shore to say his goodbyes, he heard a cry of “help” from the lake and saw a woman waving her arms in the water. The Hilhi grad didn’t hesitate. He rushed back toward the water.

Michelle saw her nephew fly past and looked up to view a frightful image. Four small heads bobbed in the water and then disappeared below the surface.

“They’re drowning!” she yelled. “They’re drowning.”

In an instant she was in the water, along with her brother, Evan, who’d also seen the children struggling from a different spot in the picnic area and joined Eric in a sprint to the lake.

Her sisters Michelle and April, and April’s husband, Lorne MacLean, were close behind.

Because the parents of the children rescued chose not to release their names or talk to the media, there are some holes in the dramatic story.

The Gibsons said it appeared that children from several families, with parents nearby, had been playing in the shallow water for some time. The children weren’t wearing life jackets, but Evan Gibson stressed that he did not view the adults as negligent, because the water was shallow.

What they didn’t realize is that several yards from shore, the incoming Sain Creek cuts a deep channel, with a steep, muddy slope. “You can go from ankle-deep in water to over-your-head in about one foot,” Mesenbrink said.

And that, apparently, is exactly what happened to the children.

Evan Gibson figures that one or more of the children wandered out from shore and slipped off that muddy ledge. Others, who rushed to help, found themselves under water.

By the time he and Eric came racing from shore, two women from the other group were also the water, but they too had gone into the channel and were struggling themselves.

After pushing the women back to shallow water, the two men turned their attention to the children. They’re not clear who grabbed how many kids and in what order they got them to the bank, but one of the most harrowing moments came when Michelle, while carrying an unconscious girl in her arms, felt another small human form at her feet.

“I knew there was another one down there,” she said. “I worried about pushing her over the ledge.”

So she positioned herself between the channel and the shore and somehow managed to get the child up to where she and the other girl could be handed to the human chain that the Gibson family had formed, ending on the shore, where Lura Kirby waited — a frantic, one-woman resuscitation unit.

“Our church has done CPR classes,” Kirby said on Sunday. “But yesterday it all went out of my mind.”

‘We weren’t too late’

Still, her instincts proved right. She took the first limp body, a young, mud-covered girl lying face up, and rocked her to her side, gently, but forcefully patting her back. The lifeless body sputtered and the eyelids fluttered. The girl was breathing.

Kirby did the same to a second girl, with the same result.

“I had a sense of joy ... a sense of elation,” she said. “We weren’t too late.”

Despite the glimmer of hope on shore, the scene in the murky water was still terrifying.

“I kept asking, ‘Are there more? Are there more?’ “ Rushing said.

Finally, a young man who was with the group counted the children and said they were all there. Only then could the Gibsons begin to relax.

At some point in the chaos, Evan’s wife, Tina, called 9-1-1. Mesenbrink, as is often the case around Gaston, was first on the scene.

“The 9-1-1 call didn’t sound good: lots of kids, possible drowning,” he said at Sunday’s press briefing, standing in front of the Gibson clan. “We had this happen before, but we didn’t have this group of wonderful people.”

By the time the fire chief arrived, all the children and the adults had been pulled from the water and were standing or sitting, wrapped in towels, fully conscious.

As a precaution, several were sent to local medical facilities for a quick examination, but Mesenbrink said all were doing fine.

As for the Gibsons, they’ve done a lot of “what ifs.” What if their reunion had been in August, as usual, instead of September? What if they’d gone to their usual spot, Lake Rosyln, instead of Hagg Lake? What if they’d stopped at Boat Ramp C?

Lura Kirby has her answer for why they ended up in that place at that time: “I think there were angels with us.”

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