Coast Guardsman hailed as hero for saving girl in Columbia River

Coast Guardsman hailed as hero for saving girl in Columbia River
Petty Officer 2nd Class Leon Doniphan clings to a chain after rescuing a girl in danger of being swept under a Large Navigation Buoy on the Columbia River in Astoria, Ore., Sept. 10, 2011. Photo courtesy of Rod Hallock
ASTORIA, Ore. -- A Coast Guardsman was being honored as a hero Monday for his efforts in saving a woman from drowning in the Columbia River in September.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Leon Doniphan, a cook aboard Cutter Alert in Astoria, had just finished his shift on Sept. 10 and was heading on to the pier when he noticed some commotion on the river's edge.

It turned out, a young girl about 11- or 12-years-old, who had been swimming around the pilings under the dock, got caught in the river's current.

Moments later, it was apparent she was about to be carried under a 40-foot navigation buoy that had been retired and chained to the shore.

"The situation became grim quickly," witness Rod Hallock told the Coast Guard.

The girl managed to grab on to a small piece of metal on the buoy's edge but struggled to hold in against the churning water.

"She was yelling that she couldn’t hold on,” another witness, Lewis Nevel said.

The Coast Guard says Doniphan ran into the frigid waters and swam about 40 feet to reach the girl.

"The current was very strong and was trying to pull me under the buoy also," Doniphan said in a press release sent by the Coast Guard.

He managed to hoist the girl on to his shoulders and swim both of them just far enough away to not get trapped under the large buoy. But as they both began to be carried downriver by the current, Doniphan grabbed on to the chain that had tied the buoy to shore and pulled the two to shore.

Another crew member met the pair at the water's edge and helped hoist the girl up the shore's rocks to safety. The girl gave Doniphan a big hug and thanked him.

"I have courage, but I don’t feel like a hero," Doniphan said. "I’m a regular guy, a cook. I was in the right place at the right time." He later joked he had to act because the media would have "a field day" if someone drowned right next to a Coast Guard cutter.