As Micheal Crawley struggled to pull a man who outweighed him from the cold, deep Ogeechee River, he briefly wondered whether he would have to let the man drown to save his own life.
Later that night, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources conservation corporal had to fight off hypothermia for himself and the four hunters he had saved from the swollen river during a rescue mission that lasted more than 10 hours.
The rescue in March wasn’t his first, but it was the one he called the “most extreme and life-threatening.”
On Wednesday, he was honored with the Wilderness Hero Award at the American Red Cross’ second annual Heroes Breakfast at First Baptist Church. He was one of 13 recipients for awards that honored law enforcement, nurses, firefighters, military, educators and good Samaritans for their life-saving efforts.
The award was the third time Crawley has been recognized for that night. He already had been honored with a resolution from the Georgia Senate and a Department of Natural Resources award.
“I don’t feel like I deserve it,” Crawley said of being named a hero. “I’d do it again. I just did what I was trained to do.”
Crawley, who has worked for the department for 11 years, was off duty when he got the call about 10:30 p.m. that four hunters had been lost in the Ogeechee River near the Jefferson/Washington County line. After wading more than a mile in the water toward the sound of their calls for help, he found them in a boat in the raging river.
Crawley said the only way to save them at that point was to have them get out of their boat in their life jackets and swim to him one by one. As he did so, one man slipped out of his unbuckled life jacket, thrashed and disappeared into the nearly 15-foot-deep cold water.
“I dove into the water and swam probably 30 yards at an angle in swift water to the life jacket,” Crawley said. “When I got to the life jacket I felt something at my feet, and it was him. I dove down and brought him to the top. He immediately went to thrashing, grabbed ahold of me and pulled me back under the water.”
It took three attempts to pull the man up before Crawley could get them all to safety. On the opposite side of the river from where other rescuers could safely respond, Crawley realized he would have to stay there through the night with the hunters until a rescue crew could arrive in the morning.
“We were on the verge of hypothermia,” he said.
Crawley instructed the men to remove their wet clothes while he built a fire by lighting a dry shirt with a cigarette lighter.
“We basically sat there until 9 a.m. the next morning,” he said. “I stayed there and kept the fire going.”
Crawley’s mother, Tere Crawley, said that he has always wanted to work at DNR and that she believes the rescue is a highlight in his career, but she shudders to think how differently the situation could have ended.
“When you first hear, you don’t think it’s real,” she said at the ceremony Wednesday. “I was extremely glad he was safe and had brought someone else to safety. I was in awe of him.”
Crawley said he has kept in contact with the men he rescued.
After the heroes ceremony, Crawley went to the Richmond County courthouse, where he was sworn in as a Richmond County sheriff’s reserve deputy to provide additional opportunities to give back to the community.