• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
6m 42s

Questions, memories remain after 5-year-old’s Glacier Creek drowning

By Kirsten Swann 1:44 PM July 8, 2014
GIRDWOOD –

When the man working at the Girdwood Tesoro Friday evening picked up the phone and heard his girlfriend’s broken voice, he looked across the highway and saw the EMS lights by the creek where she often brought her boys to play.

He started running.

It was just about 6:30 p.m. and there was one thing on his mind — Thomas, age 5.

While the next hour-and-a-half seemed to pass by in a blur, Sean Byers wondered afterwards why it had to take so long.

After he got the call that little Thomas had vanished on the banks of Glacier Creek, Byers said it couldn’t have taken him more than five or six minutes to run across the flats, through the dead forest and onto the beach where the creek meets Turnagain Arm. He said it seemed to make sense: If you wanted to find something in the water, go to the farthest point. So he ran.

He knows the paths — he said he walks the forest regularly and often. He passed rescuers near a bend in the creek and wondered why they were turning back so far from the mouth of the stream. He kept running until finally, near where the creek reaches the ocean, he saw something in the water. Was it his boy? Byers has poor eyesight — for a split second he said he wasn’t sure. Another second later he knew it was Thomas.

He can’t swim — he shouted to the search and rescue crews — but they were too far upstream and Thomas was still in the water, so Byers said he plunged into the creek up to his thighs. It was icy and much stronger than he expected, but he reached the little boy and lifted him out of the current.

The 5-year-old’s boots had been knocked off in the water. His pants had been pulled down around one ankle and his water-sodden t-shirt was nearly off. He was limp in Byers’ arms. As Byers carried the child back to the bank of the creek, he lost his footing and fell into the creek up to his neck. For a moment, all he felt was the freezing, rushing water pushing them both towards Turnagain Arm.

“I’m thinking, ‘This is it Thomas, we’re going together,’” Byers recalled. “At least I got you.”

Miraculously, his feet locked back onto the riverbed and he clambered up onto the shore, laying the dark-haired boy on the beach. Byers said he wondered why the rescue crews were still so far away. He tried shouting and throwing his orange work vest into the air to catch their attention, but his voice was drowned out by the wind along Turnagain Arm. He didn’t know if he remembered the right way to perform CPR, he said, but he began pumping Thomas’s chest. Water and snot flowed from the boy’s nose and mouth.

Again, Byers tried to catch the attention of the search and rescue teams closer to the highway. It finally seemed to pay off, and he said a tiny boat carrying several people began to make its way down the creek. It seemed like an eternity.

“I was just trusting they had the strength, the knowledge and the education on how to save a boy’s life,” Byers said.

The watercraft finally arrived and the team began performing CPR. Girdwood Fire Department Chief William Chadwick said they were swimmers trained in water rescues: He said they don’t carry radios because they’re too bulky, too fragile and may become snagged on underwater obstacles.

So when the swimmers arrived on the beach around 7 p.m., Byers said he was told to run back up to the highway and tell other crews about the location. Winded and soaked, Byers said he ran until he heard whistles coming from the beach behind him. He turned to look back — wondered why the boat was still on the shore — then ran back to where Thomas still lay on the beach.

Again, he said rescue crews told him to run and alert the people on the highway. Again, he started to run back towards the road — this time alongside another rescuer. Running in wet and frozen clothes, Byers fell behind and said he noticed two troopers approaching the beach on the wrong side of the creek. He shouted at them to go back and cross to the right side, but they didn’t seem to hear and at that point, Byers said he didn’t have time for anything but getting back to the highway.

When he reached the road and the troopers blocking traffic, one question seemed to burn into his mind.

“What kind of search and rescue doesn’t carry a radio? A cell phone?” he asked. “I just don’t understand.”

Then he found his girlfriend with troopers near the bridge over the creek, and held her as the flurry of activity whirled around them.

Courtney Smith said she and her three boys were throwing sticks into Glacier Creek moments before her oldest son disappeared. They’d played in the same spot countless times before. But this time, when it was time to go and she strapped her two younger boys into their seats and turned to load Thomas into the car, he was nowhere to be found. She prayed he was in the bushes, hoped he had gone to throw one more stick, screamed his name — there was no response.

She said she called 911, and ran down the bank of the creek as an automated hold message played in her ear. There was an alder thicket 200-300 feet away, filled with sticks that could lure a little boy. Smith said she ran towards the trees as the seconds seemed like forever and the recorded message replayed three times. Finally someone picked up the phone.

According to Alaska State Troopers, 911 calls in Girdwood are routed through the Anchorage Police Department before being transferred to either the fire department or troopers in the Matanuska Valley or on the Kenai Peninsula. Smith was eventually transferred to dispatchers in Soldotna. Then, after a frantic phone call to her mother, she called Byers at the gas station nearby.

AST said it took approximately 30 minutes for rescue crews to reach the place where Thomas lay on the beach. It took another hour after that to medevac him to the Anchorage hospital where he later passed away.

But he had been pulled from the water in the time it took Byers to run from the Tesoro station to the beach a half mile away.

Now his family is left only with questions, and memories of a little boy with big eyes who loved to be outdoors.

In photos and videos, Thomas smiles and plays in the Alaska sunshine with his two younger brothers; climbing rocks, giving a thumbs-up to the camera at the McHugh Creek overlook, handing a flower to his mother.

And he loved to tell people his name and age: “Thomas, age 5,” he would say.

“All I can hear is, ‘Thomas, age 5,’” Byers said, voice breaking. “I need him to say, ‘Thomas, age 6.’”

Tuesday, the 5-year-old’s loved ones said their final goodbyes. They chose to donate his organs; Smith said she hoped they could help another little boy or girl. Maybe another child would have more time to throw sticks into a creek on a sunny day or pick flowers for their mother.

Byers said he needs to go back to Glacier Creek — he wants to find Thomas’s boots, and he wants to find the place where the bank crumbled under the boy’s feet or was just slippery enough to send him into the water. He said he needs to know.

And four days after the surging creek claimed Thomas Petty’s young life, his family holds to the belief that everyone comes in to the world for a reason.

“I believe Thomas’s reason is to help other kids,” Byers said. “And he is.”

 

 

 

Latest Stories

  • News

    Alaska Gov.-elect Walker names 4 to positions

    by Associated Press on Nov 25, 23:27

    Alaska Gov.-elect Bill Walker on Tuesday announced four new staff members, including an attorney general. Walker said in a release that Craig Richards will serve as attorney general. Richards said he’ll be reviewing the status of the National Guard investigation and the state’s lawsuit that is trying to reinstate the ban on same-sex marriage. Walker […]

  • News

    Vehicle leaves Parks Highway, strikes sled dog team near Willow

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Nov 25, 21:48

    A musher is in the hospital after a car veered off the Parks Highway Tuesday night and hit the dog team. At around 7:30 p.m., authorities responded to Mile 91 of the highway in the Willow area. There, they found a seriously injured musher and numerous sled dogs. Mat-Su spokesperson Patty Sullivan says a helicopter […]

  • Lifestyle

    Artists in Alaska plan to add a little color to Black Friday

    by Shannon Ballard on Nov 25, 20:10

    Life needs color, says Lori Teich. That explains why nearly everything she owns is splattered with paint. Teich says she started experimenting with acrylic after serving five years in the U.S. Coast Guard. “I’ve kind of always had that urge to do it,” she said. It’s the one thing that helps her relax. Painting even transferred color […]

  • Weather

    Evening News weather, Nov. 25

    by KTVA Weather on Nov 25, 20:05

      Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound Skies will be sunny with early morning fog. Southeast Lots of sunshine to the north. Partly sunny skies in the southern inner channels. Interior and North Slope Skies will cloudy and temperatures falling again. Interior Alaska received its first measurable snowfall of November today with nearly six inches […]

  • Sports

    Great Alaska Shootout brings former Dimond player home

    by KTVA Sports on Nov 25, 19:48

    Boise State guard Keiahnna Engel is home. The former Dimond High School standout is back in Anchorage, but she is not here to visit family. This trip is all business. “I’m so used to her wanting to like come bug me and come hang out and stuff and all that type of weird sisterly things […]

  • News

    Sullivan Arena sees competition as Great Alaska Shootout moves to UAA

    by Heather Hintze on Nov 25, 19:39

    The only shootout you’ll find at the Sullivan Arena this week will be on the ice. For the first year since it opened in 1983, the arena isn’t hosting the GCI Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament.  Instead, a hockey team from Northern Michigan is practicing there before heading up to Fairbanks. “It’s obviously one of […]

  • News

    1 dead, multiple injured in Sterling Highway vehicle crash

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Nov 25, 19:29

    One person is dead and others injured in a Tuesday evening vehicle collision on the Sterling Highway. At 5:40 p.m., Alaska State Troopers responded to a two-vehicle crash at Mile 146 of the highway, in the Happy Valley area, said AST spokeswoman Megan Peters in an email. The highway is closed while first responders are on-scene. […]

  • News

    East Anchorage neighbors worry about injured moose

    by Lauren Maxwell on Nov 25, 18:45

    The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is urging people who live in an East Anchorage neighborhood to leave an injured moose alone. But that’s particularly hard for Dan Main. The large bull is lying down in Main’s yard and has barely moved since Monday. “Our concern is the animal,” said Main. “We aren’t worried […]