Darold Dornbush looked forward to spending a fun, relaxing Father's day with his wife Jill, and daughters, Katie, 9, Maggie, 7, and Anna 6 at one of their favorite places, Willow River State Park.

But one false step from someone else changed that warm, sunny Sunday into one that caused Dornbush to risk his life to save a stranger.

More than 30 people remained on the bridge at a safe distance from the swollen Willow River rushing ferociously over the 30-foot drop of the falls.

But Michael Van Ness, 21, Hudson, who had been to the falls "a million times and knew the water was three to four times higher than usual" waded out into the raging river to "stand in the water and enjoy it."

Suddenly, Van Ness found himself out further in the rushing water than he had intended, according to a phone interview with the New Richmond News.

"I was standing there trying to enjoy the water," Van Ness said, "but the water was too much."

One misstep sent Van Ness tumbling down the waterfall, hitting all five levels as he went. He was tossed about like a twig between rocks and pools of swirling water. Van Ness was sucked under water in one eddy just before the bridge and did not surface for what seemed like an eternity at the time.

That's when Dornbush, 49, New Richmond, saw Van Ness' plight and knew he had to act fast to help the young man.

While the crowd collectively held their breath and watched, helpless to save Van Ness, Dornbush jumped a fence and made his way to the river.

The crowd was silent except for one voice above the crashing waters of the river. Dornbush's daughter, Maggie, began to scream when she saw her dad heading for the water.

"I heard a little girl screaming as I was falling," Van Ness recalled. "The whole thing was so traumatic and there was so much panic. It happened so fast. But that little girl screaming really rattled me."

Van Ness said he was sure the thought of not making it out of the river alive crossed his mind at some point during his wild ride.

Just before Van Ness reached the bridge, Philip St. Ores of Bayport, tried unsuccessfully to pull him out of the water as he passed by the rock St. Ores was standing on, according to Willow River State Park Manager Darrel Richer.

Still unable to free himself from the river's grip as he passed under the bridge, Van Ness reached out to grab the hand of a stranger being offered amid the swirling water.

The rescue

Dornbush, recalling his lifeguard training some 28 years prior, was waist high in the river holding on to a concrete abutment with one hand and reaching out to Van Ness with the other. Dornbush knew if he let go of the abutment there was a chance he too could be swept away by the current.

"I was so happy to see him (Van Ness) come up from the eddy and pass under the bridge," Dornbush said of Van Ness. "Then I knew he was still alive."

But as Dornbush reached for Van Ness, he couldn't quite catch him, so he let go of the abutment and grabbed his hand.

"When I saw the look on his face and heard him say something to me like 'please help me,' I knew I had to do something for him," Dornbush recalled. "He was so scared."

Once Dornbush pulled Van Ness to calmer water, they stood for several minutes with Dornbush supporting the nearly drowned Van Ness.

"I thought we could walk up the side of the river to the bridge where the water was lower, but he (Van Ness) was too weak so I just told him everything was OK now and that he was going to be fine. I told him we'll just stand here and catch our breath for a minute."

"I just remember looking at my knee," Van Ness said referring to his left knee that would later require eight stitches. "Then I think I went into shock because I don't remember anything after that."

That's when an unidentified man, also from New Richmond, and Van Ness' buddies, Reece Smedstad, 19, and Tyler Hole, 20, both of Hudson, helped Dornbush lift Van Ness from the river and carry him to a bench on the bridge.

A group effort

"It was really a group effort," Dornbush said of the rescue." I may have been the one to get wet, but God was with that young man all the way down the falls and there were good people waiting to help him on that bridge."

Dornbush's daughter, Maggie, gave Van Ness her towel for warmth and a young mom gave him her baby's blanket and a diaper to help stop the bleeding on his gashed knee.

While the group waited for emergency crews to arrive they did what they could to keep Van Ness warm and comfortable.

Dornbush sent his wife, Jill, who had earlier called 911, and their daughters to the top of the hill to wait for emergency vehicles and to get his daughters away from the trauma they had witnessed.

Dornbush and his family hikes the trail to the falls about six times a year for the past seven years, he said

"Our trips to the falls will never be the same," he said.

On to the hospital

A sheriff's deputy and St. Croix paramedics arrived and the decision was made to transport Van Ness to Regions Hospital via Life-Link Helicopter.

The helicopter landed at the nearby Hudson Town Hall and took Van Ness to Regions, where he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit, according to Van Ness.

"In the ICU, they were giving me drugs to calm me down because I was combative," Van Ness said Thursday. "They put me in an induced coma and put a tube down my throat. I woke up with the tube and a neck brace, thinking 'what have I done to myself?'"

In addition to a fractured right wrist and stitches in his knee, Van Ness also suffered a fractured radius in his back. He was told by physicians that it was a clean break and surgery would not be needed.

Van Ness said doctors also told him he had "premature signs of drowning" and that all the water he had swallowed had taken a toll on his body.

"I'm still coughing up blood," Van Ness said. "The doctors told me if the man (Dornbush) hadn't grabbed, me I might have drowned."

Van Ness has not had contact with either of his rescuers, saying he isn't even ready to look at photographs of the incident yet.

"I guess I'm avoiding the whole thing right now," Van Ness admitted. "But if I did talk to the man (Dornbush) who saved me I would thank him on my family's behalf because he really did save my life."

Considering how far he fell and how banged up he is, Van Ness said he knows he's very lucky.


If he could do things differently next time, Van Ness said he wouldn't have wandered off by himself and wouldn't have gone so far out into the water.

Van Ness was allegedly drinking alcohol while at the park and he had an alleged blood alcohol content of .31 when he arrived at the hospital, according to Ed Culhane of the Department of Natural Resources, office of communications in Eau Claire.

"Van Ness will be cited by Park Police for furnishing alcohol to underage drinkers and Smedstad and Hole will receive underage drinking citations," Culhane said.

"It was a mistake to be drinking -- a huge mistake," Van Ness said. "I will regret the repercussions of that for awhile."

Van Ness is also one of the recent Hudson High School graduates charged with a felony in the June 2007 vandalism of several area high schools, including New Richmond, River Falls and two high schools in Eau Claire.

"I thought I could enjoy the falls with a cocktail in me and I just couldn't," Van Ness said.