PUEBLO, Colo. — The heroic actions of two Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) rangers and a civilian saved 11 lives during a tragic boating accident on May 29.

CPW rangers Joe Portteus and Seasonal Ranger Seth Herndon recounted the events of the day in a special interview.

“There were some people clinging to the boat. There were people scattered around in the water,” said Portteus. “Some had life jackets on, some didn’t, so we just went in and started to pick them up as quick as we could.”

The evening’s weather conditions were extremely windy, causing unusually big waves for Lake Pueblo, according Portteus. Even the rangers struggled out on the water with the rough weather conditions. Portteus and Herndon tried for radio backup to no avail – the harsh winds and waves garbled the sounds going through their mics.

The pair attempted to reach Senior Ranger Daryl Seder at the command post on shore, but the winds were blowing so hard their cries for help couldn’t be heard. Nor could they make out any replies from CPW staff on shore. Portteus and Herndon were on their own.

“We saw some debris, some life jackets and things floating, followed the debris back, were able to find the boat. Just the tip of the boat was sticking out,” said Portteus.

A chaotic scene unfolded before the rangers as they approached closer to the accident. Bobbing and flailing before them were 11 victims trying to stay afloat in 60-degree water. Children were crying for help as the winds pushed them away from the sinking boat and each other. Some were face-down in the water.

Based on the description of the boat, Portteus said he was surprised at the number of people in the water. The boat was only meant to carry about a half a dozen people.

The pair started at one end of the scene and began hoisting up as many victims out of the water as they could.

“Had to make some tough decisions about – do we pick up adults or do we pick up children first? We had a bit of triage, who is in what condition, and who can we get right now,” said Portteus.

A backup boat was still fifteen minutes out. In addition to drowning, another concern began creeping into the ranger’s mind — hypothermia.

“We had about five minutes after the call came in until we left, fifteen minutes until we got on scene, another ten minutes or so until we got everyone on the boat and about ten minutes to get back to the ramp,” stated Portteus. “That’s about forty minutes. After about forty-five minutes, hypothermia, at that temperature, can really take its toll, so we knew we were kind of on the clock.”

Racing against time, the two rangers continued loading victim after victim into their own patrol boats that were already overfilled.

“We were definitely over capacity, but it wasn’t really a concern at the point. We were out there trying to help these people who needed our help,” said Herndon.

Darkness was falling, making the flashing red, white, and blue lights of the CPW boats the only beacon of safety. In the dimness, Portteus and Herndon could make out another beacon of hope when they saw a civilian had rushed out to the scene.

“There was a civilian that came out and helped us, and he hasn’t been mentioned in any of the stories that I’ve seen so far… his name is Nikolas Feborczuk… I want to say thank you to him as well,” said Portteus.

Nikolas Feborczuk was a stroke of luck the CPW rangers needed that night. He had come on his own personal boat and saved a victim out of the water.

“He got the eleventh person on board, which allowed us to get the kids to the paramedics as quickly as possible. So, without him being there, we could have potentially lost one of those children,” stated Herndon.

Portteus and Herndon are being nominated for CPW Life-Saving Awards while Senior Ranger Seder is being nominated for an Exceptional Service Award for managing the incident at the scene.