Any other day, Scott Van House would have worn flip-flops. The third-grade teacher lives in sandals during the summer.
But on the June 2015 afternoon that he and his sister saved a life, he was wearing shoes—one of several small personal anomalies that converged in a life-altering act of heroism.
Earlier that day, two different groups of friends invited him to Tacoma to watch the U.S. Open’s first Pacific Northwest tournament. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time I would have said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s go,’” Van House says.
But he opted instead to attend a barbecue on his family’s property on the Cowlitz River. His sister, Kelli Howes, a paraeducator at Helen Baller Elementary school in Camas School District, came up for the day with her children.
The gathering was interrupted by a car speeding into the driveway. The driver shouted that a young child had slipped off an inner tube upstream. The family assured the driver they’d look out.
Soon after the car left, they spotted a flash of orange bobbing in the murky water. Van House thought it was a towel. Maybe a beach ball. But he remembered the driver’s plea and decided to investigate.
The object took form as Van House raced toward the water at a speed that would have been impossible in flip-flops. It wasn’t a towel or a beach ball. It was a swimsuit.
He was crying by the time he scooped up the boy. Howes also splashed into the river, shockingly cold even in June from the Mount St. Helens runoff. The siblings swam with the 5-year-old onto a sandbar, the last outpost before the fast-moving current could have yanked all three into deep, dangerous water.
Van House had never used the CPR and first aid training he’d completed years before. He credits Howes with a swift reaction, placing the boy on his back and tipping back his head. Howes and Van House began performing rescue breaths and chest compressions on the nonresponsive child. A minute passed. Three minutes. Time seemed to stretch longer than the river.
They worked for about 15 minutes until first responders reached the sandbar.
The family’s property buzzed with emergency vehicles and news trucks as responders later airlifted the child to the hospital.
That night, they learned that the boy survived.
For their efforts, Van House and Howes received the Red Cross’ CPR Rescue Hero Award in March 2016. The recognition is nice, but for Van House the experience was enough.
“This was definitely the biggest, coolest, most awesome thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “I’m just happy that I was there.”
He now encourages his students at Minnehaha Elementary to practice water safety and wear life vests. They know their teacher’s heroic story. They ask him to tell it often.
He tells them, “I just did what I had to do. And I would do it again in an instant if I had to.”