Farmington's Lt. Jeremy Dugan wins New Mexico Firefighter of the Year

Jeremy Dugan honored for dramatic rescue during 2022 Riverfest

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Dugan is a 17-year veteran of the Farmington Fire Department and the father of two sons.
  • He is a former whitewater rafting guide and a member of the department's technical rescue team.
  • Dugan saved a 20-month old girl from drowning in the Animas River last Memorial Day weekend.
Lt. Jeremy Dugan of the Farmington Fire Department reacts after receiving the New Mexico Firefighter of the Year award during an April 15 ceremony in Albuquerque.

FARMINGTON — Nearly a year after risking his own life to pluck a 20-month-old baby from the snowmelt-swollen Animas River during Riverfest, a Farmington firefighter has been named the New Mexico Firefighter of the Year for his actions.

Lt. Jeremy Dugan was presented with the award April 15 during the annual Fight for Air Climb fundraising competition presented by the American Lung Association at the fire training academy in Albuquerque. He was nominated for the award by Kilian Carey, the president of the Farmington Professional Firefighters Association, who outlined Dugan’s heroism on May 29, 2022, in a synopsis of the incident he wrote the next day while recommending Dugan for a commendation.

“I’ve been in the fire service for 10 years, and it was hands-down the most heroic thing I’ve ever seen,” Carey said in an interview with The Daily Times, describing the action Dugan took to rescue the baby girl, who had fallen into the river when the raft in which she was riding with her mother overturned, plunging all its occupants into the water. “And he put himself in harm’s way knowing he’s got two boys sitting at home that he’s responsible for. It was absolutely breathtaking.”

When he reflected on that incident nearly 11 months later, Dugan, a 17-year veteran of the Farmington Fire Department and a single parent, recalled that it had a surreal aspect. He said the duration of the entire event was less than a minute, and yet, when he pictured it in his mind, it seems like an eternity.

“Whether we were really lucky that day or just really good or both, I can tell you I could have easily missed her,” Dugan said, explaining that when he leapt from his raft into a treacherous section of the Animas River known as “the Hole” to pull the baby to safety, both he and the child could have wound up as casualties of the same incident. “I could have easily been the story of what not to do. But in order for something like that to happen, somebody was looking out for that little girl that day.”

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The menace of the Hole

As it frequently is during that time of year, the Animas River was swollen with snowmelt at noon on Sunday, May 29, 2022, the final day of the annual Riverfest celebration held over Memorial Day weekend each year in Animas and Berg parks in Farmington. The river was running fast and deep, especially at the location adjacent to Cottonwood Landing on the northwest bank of the river.

At the nearby Rocky Reach Landing on the other side, hundreds of people were gathered in front of a stage where a live band was performing while others had convened in the shade of a covered beer garden or were milling about the dozens of food trucks, trying to choose between Navajo tacos and dozens of other examples of festival fare.

Dugan, a one-time river guide in Colorado and West Virginia who had been involved in dozens of whitewater rescue operations over the years, found himself in a fire department raft with engineer Eric Hickerson, both members of the agency’s technical rescue team. Dugan and Hickerson were stationed there because that location on the river has been known to become treacherous when the water flow reaches between 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and 6,000 to 7,000 cfs. Those conditions, and the topography below the water, combine to form a hydraulic feature in the river that has come to be known as “the Hole,” a rapidly circulating spot that easily can tip a raft and pull a swimmer underwater to his or her death.

“We pull people from the river on a regular basis,” Dugan said of the members of the technical rescue team.

But the Hole is different, he said, noting its circulating nature, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to escape.

“If you find yourself in it, you can’t get out,” he said, while noting that the Hole is reduced to a relatively benign spot on the river by August, when the flow of water is greatly reduced, causing it to behave differently.

On that day, Dugan glanced upriver and saw a private raft carrying four adults, one of whom, a woman, had a baby strapped to her chest via a harness. None of the adults were wearing personal floatation devices, but the baby was. Dugan got an uneasy feeling and thought it would be a good idea if he and Hickerson maneuvered their raft to a spot just downriver from the Hole.

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Sure enough, Dugan said, the raft entered the whitewater section near the Hole incorrectly, causing the front end to plunge downward and the back end to rise. Every occupant of the craft was sent flying into the water, and the mother and her child — a baby girl — quickly were separated. Dugan saw the child disappear for a second before her head popped up squarely in the middle of the Hole.

The child, even while wearing a floatation device, repeatedly was pulled underwater and forced to the bottom of the river, only to be kicked out the bottom of the hydraulic feature, float to the surface, then get sucked back in.

“This happened fast, probably in about seven or eight seconds,” Dugan said. “After the third time, I just ran off the end of the boat and dove into the water.”

Breaking the surface, Dugan said he found himself just downstream from the Hole. Fighting to get his bearings, a water cooler struck him in the head, then he felt the baby brush his body. He quickly snatched her with his right arm.

“I think she had held her breath,” he said. “She was fine. She wasn’t even crying.”

But as he murmured to the child, trying to keep her calm, Dugan felt himself being pulled into the Hole. His mind raced, wondering whether it would be better to hold the child above the water in his right arm while he went under or if he should bring her down with him and hope they both got kicked out the bottom of the Hole, where he might be able to break the grip of the current and swim them both to safety.

It was a decision he never had to make. Kicking frantically, he felt one of his feet brush against a rock, and he managed to push both of them away from the Hole, at least temporarily. Knowing he likely had bought himself and the child only a few seconds of safety, Dugan was elated to hear Hickerson call out to him a few feet behind him, instructing him to grab the front of the raft, which Dugan did with his free left hand.

Even from that relative position of safety, Dugan — fighting fatigue, cold and disorientation by now — could feel himself being sucked back into the Hole. He wondered how long he would be able to maintain his position.

But once again, Hickerson had his back.

“Eric Hickerson is an absolute monster of a human being,” Dugan said, laughing. “He let out a couple of war cries and pulled us out. I handed him the baby. The whole thing was probably a 20-second deal.”

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Coming to his senses

As the rescue of the child was unfolding, the four adults in the raft were able to make their way to shore on their own and may have been almost entirely unaware of the drama unfolding just a few feet away.

“They didn’t even witness it,” Dugan said. “I don’t think they realized the gravity of what took place.”

Dugan and Hickerson quickly reunited the child with its mother, then Dugan found a large rock to sit on, where he began to process what had just happened and tried to gather his strength.

“I was done,” he said, describing the utter physical and mental exhaustion he felt at that moment. “Very infrequently in my life have I had an adrenaline dump like that. I had to take a breath, and, fortunately, it was a chuckle instead of a tear.”

Referring to the many other whitewater rescues in which he has taken part over his career, Dugan said the rescue of a baby is far more complicated.

“You can’t throw a rope to them or communicate with them,” he said. “They’re essentially helpless. They can’t help you out in any way.”

But Dugan, who was left as the sole parent of his sons Ryan and Tyler eight years ago when his wife died of cancer, said the urge to protect a youngster who is in harm’s way can lead a first responder to do extraordinary things.

“When something happens to a baby, it really hits us a little bit differently than normal,” he said.

Carey said he already knew Dugan was an exceptional man before the incident took place because of the way Dugan has responded to the challenge of raising his sons alone.

“I don’t know many people who would be able to continue in his career as a firefighter and continue raising his kids,” Carey said.

Robert Sterrett, chief of the Farmington Fire Department, described Dugan as an amazing individual, citing his mental acuity and his dedication to his craft. Sterrett also noted that Dugan was undeterred by the difficulty of the circumstances he faced during the rescue, pointing out he never hesitated, instead getting right to work and doing what needed to be done to save the child’s life.

When asked how he thought he might react if he faced the same circumstances again, Dugan said he thought he would do the same thing. But he acknowledged he might not do it in such an automatic fashion.

“I can tell you most of us on our technical rescue team have been sucked down that hole, and we hate it. It’s awful. It would be tough to jump into that hole again,” he said, explaining that the usual procedure involves waiting for a distressed adult swimmer to emerge from the bottom of the Hole, then try to snag the person before he or she can be pulled back into the top, repeating the process.

That wasn’t an option in this case, Dugan said, explaining the child already had been through the cycle three times.

“But I hate that hole,” he said. “It is an awful and horrifying place to be.”

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610

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