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9-year-old who nearly drowned at Utah reservoir meets man who saved him

Posted at 9:53 AM, Aug 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-29 13:49:12-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Last Monday, a truck rolled into a reservoir in Summit County, Utah, with three little kids still inside.

Two kids made it out, but one boy was stuck inside until a retired park ranger saw what was happening and dove in to save him.

On Friday, 9-year-old Paxton no longer needed life support. Then on Sunday, he got to meet the hero who saved his life. The room was filled with happy tears for this sweet reunion at Primary Children's Hospital.

“A lot of laughs, a lot of thumbs-ups. Paxton actually gave a thumbs-up today,” said Kelley Carpenter, Paxton’s aunt.

Six days after Paxton was stuck in a sinking truck at Smith and Morehouse Reservoir, his family said he is getting better and stronger every day.

“We’re going to try to get him to eat some things, drink some water, probably try to get him up as he starts to get stronger and get him outside to get him some fresh air,” said Carpenter.

On Sunday, Paxton and the man who saved his life — a retired park ranger and emergency responder named Joe Donnell — exchanged a hug and reunited for the first time since that nearly tragic day.

“It was just the perfect outcome to a potentially bad situation,” said Donnell. “We were talking about going fishing — we got him a fishing pole and I said, 'As soon as you get out, man, we’re going fishing.'”

Donnell just happened to be close by when the truck was rolling down the boat ramp, and he had the skills to dive down to the submerged truck seven times to bring Paxton to the shore.

“The father kept saying, 'How can I repay you?' and I would just point to Paxton and say, 'That’s all the payment I need. He’s alive,'” Donnell said.

He also gave Paxton a special badge he was awarded when we worked the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

“I had mine custom-framed, so I gave him that badge,” said Donnell. “I’ve had it years and I thought, 'He was saved by a park ranger, now he has a park ranger badge.' So I thought that was a pretty cool little gift."

Donnell’s wife and daughter were at the reservoir too when this happened, and they helped Paxton’s family, especially his siblings, after they were pulled out safely.

“So I grabbed the little girl and I took my jacket off, wrapped her in it, and sat down on the boat ramp and held her," said Timber Donnell, Joe’s daughter. "I held her so tight to my chest that she didn’t see anything."

A story that started with near tragedy brought strangers together and ultimately made them like family.

“The fact that Joe was there and never quit fighting to get Paxton, that was huge for our family," Carpenter said. "Joe will forever be part of our family and we are all just so thankful and grateful for him."

The family said that doctors expect Paxton to make a full recovery. They do have a long road ahead, but they said Paxton’s family will be by his side through it all.

This article was written by Mythili Gubbi for KSTU.