SA family honored for life saving acts

  • Published
  • By AFOSI Public Affairs

A family affair took on special meaning for Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Keith Harper of Detachment 512, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, United Kingdom.

SA Harper, his son Sean, nephew Andrew and brother Guy, were recently recognized by a Northern California Lions Club, receiving the Area-Wide Police Valor Award for 2017, for their "courageous and selfless" acts in saving a drowning kayaker's life on the Trinity River in Lewiston, Calif.  

“It’s no surprise these heroes leapt into action,” said Col. (Special Agent) Shan B. Nuckols, AFOSI Region 5 Commander. “They’re all law enforcement officers.”

Deputy Sean Harper is with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, Officer Andrew Harper is with the San Bruno Police Department and Mr. Guy Harper is a former reserve officer with the Redwood City Police Department.

On July 2, 2016, at approximately 2 p.m., an inexperienced female river kayaker became trapped by submerged tree branches just above Cemetery Hole on a bend of the Trinity River. A group of experienced rafters, which included the officers, spotted the inflatable kayak trapped between the submerged-tree in strong rapids just above the long time fishing hole. The rafters beached their rafts while Sean and his uncle, Guy, ran to the kayaker’s aid. The kayaker freed herself from the wreckage, while the two Harpers attempted to recover her kayak.

At this point, a second inexperienced kayaker, came upon the scene to investigate and was immediately pulled under the same log, flipped into an inverted position and became trapped underwater between the riverbed and tree. Parts of his harness and rigging became entangled in tree branches making it impossible for him to right his boat or free himself from the strong current.

Special Agent Harper and Andrew waded into the rapids with a knife, while Sean and Guy began pulling away the rigging which trapped the second kayak. 

SA Harper and Andrew were pulled under the tree by the river current, but managed to pull themselves free and assist the others in lifting the tail of the kayak and pulling it upstream. All four Harpers worked feverishly to free the drowning kayaker, who remained pinned upside down between the log and the riverbed. Sean climbed under the rear of the submerged kayak and cut the snagged rigging which stubbornly held the kayak to the log, while the river current pushed the overturned kayak underwater beneath thick tree branches.

The Harper family then climbed onto the submerged log and pulled the kayak and trapped operator back against the current. Guy and Sean exposed themselves to further danger from the river current by pushing the submerged kayak and its operator under the branches to free him.  Throughout the several minute rescue, the second kayaker remained underwater while all four men battled the river current to free him. They ensured he made it to shore and was breathing.

Neither kayaker had ever been kayaking in a river before, were not accompanied by experienced kayakers and did not have the proper safety equipment. 

Had the Harper family not stopped to help when they saw the first kayak trapped in the tree, the second kayaker would have surely drowned under the log.

“Simply put, Keith, his son, brother and nephew all saved a life that day,” Col. Nuckols said. “They could have passed by the first kayaker and let someone else intervene. But, that’s not in their DNA. Not as a Harper or as law enforcement officers.”

SA Harper spent time as a civilian agent and reserve officer with AFOSI. He is also a retired police watch commander for the Redwood City, Calif., Police Department.

“They acted, with zero regard for their own safety, because it was the right thing to do,” Col. Nuckols added. “We’re proud of the entire Harper family. Well done!”