The construction manager for The Lodge at Sisters rescued a family from a wreck on Hwy. 22 last Wednesday. Their vehicle was in the North Santiam River. photo provided
The construction manager for The Lodge at Sisters rescued a family from a wreck on Hwy. 22 last Wednesday. Their vehicle was in the North Santiam River. photo provided

Jeremiah Johnson knows how treacherous the winter highway from Salem to Sisters can be. He has been crossing the Cascades for a year from the Clutch Industries headquarters in Salem to manage the construction of The Lodge at Sisters assisted-living facility on Larch Street just south of the post office.

On Wednesday, December 12, his alertness to conditions and the dangers they pose led to the rescue of a family whose vehicle had plunged off of Highway 22 into the North Santiam River.

"I like to leave this time of year at that time, because it gives the (Santiam) pass a 30-minute window of sunlight hitting it before I have to drive through it," he wrote in an email to his boss, Chris Blackburn, who provided the note to The Nugget. "You'd be surprised as to the difference that 30 (minutes) of fairly warm makes on the icy roads. I stopped in Detroit for a cup of coffee, conversed with a couple of the workers I've gotten to know that work at the store there, (and) headed up the hill. The gentleman there said as I walked out the door, 'be careful out there, it's icy!' I said, 'Thank you, I'm pretty cautious these days!' and walked to my truck (and) off I went."

Johnson made his way into the mountains, throwing on his four-wheel drive as the temperature dropped with elevation and the road began to feel slick.

Within a couple of turns of the highway, he came upon tracks that portended no good. A vehicle had lost control on the roadway and gone off the road.

"It was pretty obvious to me what had happened," Johnson told The Nugget.

Johnson has seen some very bad wrecks in the year he's been crossing the pass in his commute, and that was on his mind as he stopped to investigate.

"I wasn't sure what I was walking up on, honestly," he said.

But he never hesitated to act.

"I guess it was, if I don't stop, who's going to?" he said.

As he looked down over the shallow embankment to the North Santiam River, he saw four wheels in the air. The vehicle had flipped and was upside down in the frigid water. It turned out that there were four people inside.

"I think the daughter was hanging onto a limb and was halfway out the door," he recalled.

An avid outdoorsman, Johnson was familiar with wading into running waters, and he immediately waded out to help.

"Their truck had knocked down a five-inch diameter tree, and it was laying next to the vehicle in the river, so I wedged my foot/thigh into it, (and) grabbed her hand. As if [sic] she was rescued, she went completely limp (and) I dragged/skipped her down river, (and) across to the bank," Johnson reported in his email. "I proceeded to help each person out of the vehicle. The brother next, the mother who was in total shock (and) wouldn't cooperate without me grabbing her (and) telling her I was going to 'drag her to the bank, one way or the other!,' and then finally the father."

Remarkably, there were no serious injuries. Another passerby had stopped by then, and helped the family get warm, as they were threatened by hypothermia. The truck was eventually towed out of the streambed.

Johnson continued over the mountains to Sisters, where The Lodge project is on track for completion and a targeted February opening.

"We're getting down to the end of it now, so I am making the commute more frequently," he said.

And, he hopes, more uneventfully from now on.

Johnson is glad he could help and said that stopping and acting just seemed like the right and natural thing to do.

"I have friends who are cops, firefighters," he told The Nugget. "They'd have done exactly the same thing."

Reflecting on the event in his email, he noted, "All of this to say, that I am glad it happened the way it did (and) that the 'best case scenario' occurred. My hope is that if I ever end up in a similar position, I hope someone stops for me!"