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‘Would have drowned:’ DNR warden, emergency responders free man pinned to vehicle in flash flooding

DANE COUNTY — A Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warden was able to help save the life of a man whose vehicle was swept off the road and into the rising Sugar River late Monday, Aug. 20 amid flash flooding.

A state of emergency has been declared in Dane County after 11-15 inches of rain fell Monday-Tuesday.

According to a news release from DNR officials, Jake Donar’s “preparedness, expert boat handling in dangerous currents and teamwork with Dane County Sheriff’s deputies and area agencies” helped save the man’s life.

It happened off Highway PD, near the Military Trail area in southern Dane County.

“This rescue would not have been possible without every person working together, and there were multiple emergency responders. Everyone deserves credit,” said Warden Donar in the release.

You may recall, James Sewell, 70, of Madison lost his life when he was swept away in Monday’s flash flooding. His body was found in a retention pond on Tuesday.

According to the DNR, around midnight, Warden Donar was on the other side of Sugar River when he got the Dane County emergency call about a man in trouble at the river. When deputies arrived on scene at the Sugar River, the man was sitting on his car, but his leg was pinned inside.

“Nobody could get to him because of the ripping current, and the water was rising rapidly,” said Warden Donar in the release.

The emergency responders hatched a plan and requested a boat built for these swift water situations. Warden Donar raced to the DNR’s “Fitchburg Service Center” to get his flat bottom boat and grabbed enough life jackets for all. Meanwhile, back at the river, emergency responders were able to toss the trapped man a flotation ring.

Warden Donar arrived, and dropped the boat in the rising, rushing waters. Then he and the two deputies geared up with the swift water life jackets. Together, they sped into the rushing dark water with Warden Donar at the helm.

DNR officials said Warden Donar tapped his training and knew exactly how to operate the boat in these harrowing conditions. By the time he the two officers got to the man, the man was holding the ring around his chin to keep his head above the water line — and he was still stuck to his car.

Other emergency responders in a second boat were able to get to the deputies and somehow provided a crowbar. Warden Donar said one deputy held the man up so he wasn’t gulping water as the other deputy used the crowbar on the car to free the man and guided him quickly into the boat, then back to shore to the medical personnel on site.

“In the time we were out there, the water went up about another several inches. That man would have drowned without the teamwork of all the emergency responders who came to the scene,” said Warden Donar in the release.

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