King County sheriff’s Sgt. Cameron Lefler was on routine patrol when the call came in: A rafter was missing on the cold, fast-flowing Green River east of Auburn.
The call didn’t bode well for the missing man, but Lefler, 40, was optimistic.
“We have quite a few of these calls,” he said Tuesday. “It was the fourth one (this year). But we have had quite a few successes.”
Lefler headed for the Whitney Bridge Park where the rafter’s distraught girlfriend had seen him float by on a raft an hour earlier. The couple had been floating the river since 3:30 p.m., repeating the trip between Flaming Geyser State Park and the bridge. It was now 8:30 p.m.
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A Washington State Patrol airplane with an infrared heat sensor searched the river and found a tiny “hot spot” that might be the rafter. Troopers directed Lefler to a driveway in the 21200 block of Southeast Green Valley Road.
Using a flashlight, he slowly made his way through thick underbrush to the river.
Then he spotted the man.
“He was laying prone in 2 or 3 inches of water,” Lefler said. “He was in pretty bad shape.”
The man was showing signs of potentially fatal hypothermia, which occurs when the body’s temperature drops very low.
“When a person stops shivering is when you get in serious trouble,” Lefler said. “He wasn’t shivering. His muscles were tight. Another sign of hypothermia.”
Time was a factor.
“We got there just in time,” Lefler said. “Another hour and he would have been unconscious.”
Lefler pulled the man to his feet but he couldn’t walk. So Lefler threw him over his shoulder and headed back out of the river. It was an even match. The rafter was about 5 feet 9 and 160 pounds, the same as Lefler.
Getting back to shore in the dark meant finding a new, shorter route and crossing side channels, some ankle deep; others waist deep. On his way back Lefler kept one eye on the lights of nearby homes and one eye on the rafter.
“He was moaning and groaning,” Lefler recalled. “I wanted to keep him awake.” As they reached the shore a quarter-mile away, an ambulance pulled up and took the rafter, a Maple Valley man in his mid-20s, to Auburn Regional Medical Center.
Lefler – who with his wife Casandra has three children, ages 4 months to 5 years – is no stranger to public service, sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart said.
A 1988 Rogers High School graduate, Lefler served four years in the Marines before joining the Sheriff’s Office in 1993. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he took a four-year leave of absence to rejoin the Marines.
He did two tours in Iraq, including participating in the deadly offensive in Fallujah in 2004. He was wounded there and earned a Purple Heart.
“I was nicked,” he said.
During his two tours he earned two awards for valor, a Navy Commendation and a Navy Achievement.
He returned to the Sheriff’s Office in 2005 and in April he was promoted to sergeant.
After tromping around in the Green River on Friday he returned to the Maple Valley precinct, changed clothes and went back to patrol until 5:30 a.m. It’s all part of the job, he said.
Mike Archbold: 253-597-8692