Firefighter Saves Family From Scary Ordeal At Lake Shawnee

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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) -- Family members stuck in a dangerous situation on Lake Shawnee are safe thanks to a firefighter who sprung to action to rescue them.

Dan Lawton was out on Lake Shawnee fishing around 9 PM Tuesday night and decided to head back in as the winds started to pick up.

That’s when he spotted a man, woman and three small children in a rowboat caught in the current and taking on water near the yacht club. Lawton, an off duty civilian firefighter at Fort Riley, went to check on them.

"I knew the wind was going to increase. It was blowing about 20 miles an hour at that point and I knew it was going to get a little worse about 10 o’clock so I wanted to at least swing by and let them know it was going to get a little worse and make sure that they were in control of what was going on," Lawton explained.

"As I got closer, I noticed that there were three small kids and a female and there was one gentleman trying to paddle this boat which was now out towards the center of the lake and experiencing some pretty heavy chop and he had just one wooden oar. As I got a little bit closer to talk them, the man stood up and ended up falling into the water," he told WIBW.

Lawton asked the man, identified as Robert Dabney, 28, of Topeka, if he could swim to a nearby dock and Dabney said he could so Lawton turned his focus to Dabney's family members in the boat. Officials say the woman in the boat was Dabney's sister. Her child and Dabney's two children were also in the boat. Lawton said all three kids appeared to be under the age of four and were wearing life jackets.

Lawton tied their boat to the back of his kayak and when he turned around to head back in to the shore, he noticed that Dabney hadn’t moved and was really starting to struggle in the water, fatigued from trying to paddle the boat.

"There were people that had gathered on the shore so I flagged them down because things started escalating. With them in tow, I started heading back towards him. He was progressively going deeper and deeper into the water and fighting to stay above the surface…I was able to get to him and pull him up alongside the kayak and got my life jacket around him," Lawton said.

They made their way to the shore where emergency responders were waiting. Dabney was checked out by paramedics and released. No one was injured.

"He was pretty traumatized by the event. He was also pretty concerned for his children. I think he realized the severity of the situation once he got out on the water," Lawton said of the man he rescued.

Lawton has been fishing at Lake Shawnee for years and knows the lake very well. He's humble about the rescue, saying he's happy that he was in the right place at the right time so that he could help.

"We train incessantly so that you don’t have to have any thought process outside of the normal that you train to do. It doesn’t matter whether I’m on duty or not. When something like that happens, firefighters problem solve and there were some problems that needed solve so I went through the steps of what was most important," he said.

"As soon as you see something like that take place, there’s no decision to be made. It’s all automatic at this point. I’ve been a firefighter for 12 years now and it doesn’t matter whether I drive up on a vehicle accident or anything else. It’s just automatic," he added.

Shawnee County Parks Police Chief Mike Cope called Lawton's actions "commendable" and he plans to nominate him for a "Champion of Character" award through Safe Streets program which recognizes those in the community who "do what is right whatever the cost."