By Mark Esper
Sean Simpson of Durango had just heard that one of his best friends, Anna Schneider, 19, had died in a drowning in Chicago.
Camping with friends at the base of Kendall Mountain in Silverton, he needed time by himself, so he started walking up the Kendall Mountain Road near the Animas River.
It was late afternoon on the Fourth of July.
“I could hear little kids screaming all of a sudden,” Sean, 19, said Monday. “I knew something was definitely not right.”
Moments earlier a 5-year-old boy, James Wilhelm of Aztec, N.M., had fallen into the Animas a quarter mile upstream and was now tumbling down the rapids.
“I could see a blue shirt under the water going down the rapids,” Sean said. He realized it was a young boy.
“I don’t think he knew how to swim,” Sean said. “He was face down and a rapid would roll him over, but he was under the water pretty far. Those are pretty big rapids, you know.”
Sean, an experienced kayaker, didn’t hesitate.
“I scrambled down the rocks and got there right before he went by,” Sean said. “I jumped in and pulled him out.”
San Juan County Sheriff Sue Kurtz said Sean was definitely at the right place at the right time.
She said he saved the boy’s life.
“This guy is really a hero as far as I’m concerned,” Kurtz said. “If the kid had gotten past there, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Sean said little James was “cold and shivering and kind of blue” when he pulled him from the rapids.
“He seemed to be in shock,” Sean said. “Finally he got sick and threw up and started crying and screaming. He told me his name was James and he was 5. That was all I could get out of him.”
Sean said he hoisted the boy to his hip and carried him to the nearest campsite.
“I told them to call an ambulance and we gave him some blankets,” Sean said.
The ambulance crew arrived and after helping the boy warm up, released him to his mother.
Sean said Monday that he’s still trying to get over the fast-moving events of this Fourth of July.
He said his friend from the University of Hawaii, Anna, had been found dead after an accident at her family’s pool in Chicago early that day. With his cell phone turned off, another friend from Durango drove up to deliver the news.
“At the time it was so overwhelming,” he said. “I had gotten the news about Anna just 15 minutes before. I was grieving real hard for my friend.”
He called the incident the “biggest coincidence ever.”
“Now that I’ve been thinking about it, it’s like my friend gave that little boy life. I would not have gone on that walk otherwise,” Sean said. “And there was nobody else around. No one.”