Clayton man honored for heroic rescue

By Carina Romano on August 7, 2017

fossan family for websiteClayton resident Michael Fossan didn’t hesitate when he saw three people in need, and now the Boy Scouts of America presented him with the Honor Medal for his heroic river rescue.

The Honor Medal is one of four national awards the Scouts present to those who have shown great skill, heroism and courage in protecting others.

Whether it be kayaking, backpacking or camping, the Fossan family can often be found outdoors. On Memorial Day 2016, Fossan was paddle-boarding on the Russian River in Sonoma while his wife Kris and three children captained two kayaks. The family had only gotten a few miles down the river when they saw a man drowning.

“Michael, go!” yelled Fossan’s wife, pointing to a spot 100 feet away – just off the shore. Fossan then saw three people in the water, two men and a small girl. The girl and one man were clinging to a pool raft, slowly being pulled away by the current. The other man was thrashing helplessly in the river, his mouth filling with water when he tried to call out. The man on the raft was staring in petrified horror. The little girl was screaming.

‘Just getting it done’

Without hesitation, Fossan dove into the water. “In the moment, it was just doing it. There wasn’t worry or excitement or anything. It was just getting it done,” Fossan recounts.

His wife says the little girl had been fearfully calling for her uncle. The two men – presumably her family – ran into the water to help her.

“The girl was probably about 6 or 7.  She was young. She had no business being that far out on a raft by herself in a current,” she notes.

It was apparent that neither man was able to swim. When the riverbed dropped away to a depth of 12 feet, both were quickly in trouble.

“I just jumped in, kept them in my sights, swam right to them as quickly as possible,” Fossan says.

Upon reaching him, Fossan could tell that the struggling man was going to attempt to grab him. Nearly a lifetime of involvement with the Boy Scouts had taught Fossan how to safely conduct a water rescue.

“One of the scariest things in water rescue is if somebody doesn’t know how to swim and you come at them, the first thing they’re gonna do is grab you to try and stay up,” explains Fossan. “They’re not thinking clearly.”

Because of this, many people attempting water rescues are accidentally drowned by those they are trying to save. To avoid this danger, Fossan performed a successful water-rescue technique.

“I actually dove down and swam around his back and threw my right arm over his chest so he couldn’t grab me,” says Fossan. “With him not being able to sink and me holding him up above water, he calmed down immediately.”

Although Fossan spoke calmly, it was difficult to communicate because none of the three spoke English. Holding on to the man with his right arm, he used his left arm to grab the pool float that the girl and other man were hanging on. With all three of them in his grasp, Fossan began to kick the 20 feet to shore.

Bystanders unaware

Monte Rio Beach was packed with hundreds of people taking advantage of the holiday weekend, but Fossan says that no one else came to help.

“I think the one thing I would take away from this, the one thing that I would want other people to know, is the sinking horrible feeling I had when I realized nobody on the beach was helping them at all,” he says.

Even at 100 feet away, it was obvious to the Fossans that these people were in trouble. “She was screaming at the top of her lungs. He was thrashing in the water, drowning. The other guy … had that scared, silent, wide-eyed look; I don’t think he ever blinked. Nobody did anything. Nobody stepped up.”

Once Fossan pulled the group to safety, a small crowd of people rushed forward and huddled around the trio. Fossan guesses these were family and friends. Not waiting to speak with anyone, an exhausted Fossan slowly made his way back through the water to his own waiting family.

“The point was getting them to safety, and once they were safe, once the family had gotten to them, I didn’t need to be there,” says Fossan.

The whole rescue took place in only a couple of minutes. “It was surreal,” his wife says.

Reluctant hero

Eldest son Tristan nominated his dad for the Honor Medal. He is a member of Boy Scout troop 444 in Clayton, the same troop Fossan belonged to growing up. He received the award during a national event at a district Boy Scouts of America Court of Honor this spring.

The Boy Scouts website defines the Honor Medal as for someone who “has demonstrated unusual heroism and skill or resourcefulness in saving or attempting to save a life at considerable risk to self.”

Fossan was surprised to receive such an award for his actions. “I still don’t feel very comfortable about it. … I think what I did is something that should’ve been done.”

Fossan and his family of five currently live in Clayton. Fossan and his wife work at John Muir Medical Center in Concord, he as a phlebotomist and she as a nurse. Fossan is as assistant den leader for his younger son’s Cub Scout Pack 200 in Lafayette and assists Boy Scout troops within the Mount Diablo Silverado Council receive their First Aid, Water Safety and Life Saving merit badges.

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