"I asked my dad, 'Please don't let me die like this, I have a kid in my arms,'" said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Don Schmidt, a Patriot missile system technician for B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery. "People just don't die that way."
These were Schmidt's final thoughts before a huge piece of debris struck him in the head and he lost his grip on 11-year-old Angel Sandoval, resulting in the boy being swept away by the raging flashflood waters.
A fierce rainstorm that pummeled the area surrounding Tucson, Ariz., July 23, caused this husband and father of a one-year old baby girl to throw caution to the wind and risk his life to attempt to save Angel from drowning.
It is a well-known fact that many low-lying areas in the southwestern region of the U.S. flood easily because of a deadly combination of intense rain and poor drainage systems.
Schmidt, who is a native of Tucson, is well aware of the areas in his hometown that become dangerous and impassable when severe weather strikes. He had returned home and was visiting his family when dark, thick rain clouds consumed the sky.
"I was home playing with my baby for about an hour when this huge monsoon storm rolled in and it started pouring," he said. "Initially when I went out it was still raining and I was trying to help the county [highway personnel] put out the 'Do not enter when road closed' signs."
These signs are placed at sections of roads intersecting with a usually dry riverbed, which is also referred to as a "wash," that is currently filled with vigorously flowing rainwater.
Schmidt had help position a road closed sign at intersection of the Old Vail Connection Road and the Frankco Wash when he stopped and notice how unusually high the water was in this particular section.
"I remember leaving my truck running because I was just going to videotape because I had never seen the wash this full," he said. "I recorded approximately 10 seconds of video … I took a couple of steps forward to get a better view of stuff that floats by in the wash."
On the opposite side of the river, Schmidt noticed a group of young men running along the bank and staring intently at the water. That's when he noticed Angel floating down the river as the powerful current continuously pulled his head under water.
"They screamed 'Help, help; he's in the water," Schmidt said. "I jokingly laughed to myself and said 'My wife's going to kill me and I hope no one steals my cell phone.'"
Schmidt, who in no way considers himself a strong swimmer, tossed his phone and dove into the raging, debris-riddled water oblivious to what was awaiting him. He had staff duty the night before - but he was well rested - and he was in his ACUs minus the top and patrol cap.
"I got a hold of Angel right away; he was fighting with me but I managed to get control of the situation," he said. "I got him to where his back was in my arm pit. We kept getting pulled underneath; I mean we're getting dunked constantly."
They gasped for air as their heads burst above water for only a quick two or three seconds and then they were once again submerged.
"Ninety percent of my time in the water was spent underwater," Schmidt said. "There was one point where we went under [for about] 20 or 30 seconds. [When you resurface] you don't get good breaths. I was stretched out on my back and I was fighting to keep us above water; I swear I thought I was going to die."
Schmidt had a tight grip on Angel with his right arm while using his left arm to frantically grab at thorny branch after thorny branch in an unsuccessful attempt to free them from the strong current. These branches caused deep lacerations on his hand and arm.
It was at this point of desperation that he asked his deceased father to help guide him out of this perilous situation. His father passed away in 1999 from an infection that occurred during a surgical procedure to remove a pancreatic tumor. On the day of his father's surgery, Schmidt was upset with him and never said the reassuring things that one might say to a loved one having such a risky operation; he died four days later.
"I said 'dad please, let me get home to my baby and my wife; let me get this kid out of here. I can't die like this, I don't want to be found face down in a muddy wash,'" Schmidt said, who has 16 years of military service under his belt.
At that very moment, a large piece of debris struck him in the head splitting his bottom lip.
"When I got whacked, I still had him by the shirt but my grip had loosened up. Somehow I lost grip [of him] and I'll never forget this kid looking at me like I let go of him … that still haunts me to this day," he said with tears in his eyes.
Schmidt then hit a sandbar and was pulled ashore by an onlooker. As for Angel, he too hit a sandbar on the opposite side of the wash and was rescued by onlookers. In total, Schmidt battled the ravaging current for nearly five minutes. Angel, on the other hand, was swept away by the current further upstream while trying to save his younger sister who had fallen into the water.
Schmidt, Angel and his sister were taken to the hospital for minor medical treatment and then they were released.
"My wife was pretty upset and didn't speak to me the entire trip to the hospital," he said jokingly.
Schmidt believes divine intervention played a huge role in why he was there at that moment to save Angel, but ultimately he chose to risk his life to save another because it was the right thing to do.
"I didn't jump in the water for guts and glory," said Schmidt. "I just hoped that someone would do the same for my kid in that situation. Maybe I didn't change the world, but at least I made a difference in someone's life."
Article by Staff Sgt. Brandon Little, 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command