An 18-year-old college student from Fairbury, Nebraska, and a career firefighter from Sioux City, Iowa, will be honored Friday at halftime of the third annual Nebraska-Iowa Hy-Vee Heroes Game in Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium. Caleb Amundson,a first-year student at North Central Technical College in Beloit, Kansas, is the Nebraska Hero. After loading his jet ski onto his pickup truck at Harlan County Lake near Republican City in Central Nebraska last Labor Day Weekend, Amundson used the training skills he learned as a volunteer firefighter in rural Fairbury to save the life of a nearby boater who was attempting to launch his boat at a ramp next to his. The man’s brakes gave way and jack-knifed his pontoon boat and truck into 12 feet of water. The paralyzed driver, who was in shock and still buckled into his seat underneath the water, needed immediate action. Within seconds of seeing what happened, Caleb dove into the lake, located the truck’s mirror – even though he was unable to see anything in the murky water – and pulled the submerged driver to safety after unbuckling his seatbelt.
Mike Klemmensen, a full-time Sioux City firefighter and volunteer with the Hinton Fire Department, is the Iowa Hero. He saved the lives of four adults and two children three months ago. Seeing smoke coming from their Hinton home, Klemmensen raced inside, woke everyone up and made sure they all got out safely. He then stayed on the scene for seven hours, helping to fight the fire in 90-degree temperatures.
Red Cross Selects Both States’ Heroes
Neither honoree sees himself as a hero, but both have earned the respect of their respective states. Each will be introduced and recognized Friday at the Huskers/Hawkeyes’ Hy-Vee Heroes Game that will be televised nationally on ABC-TV beginning at 11 a.m. The rival game uses the national stage to honor the heroic efforts of individuals and organizations in both states. American Red Cross organizations select the Heroes winners from stacks of formally submitted nominations.
More than 75 nomination forms recommending Caleb were submitted to the Nebraska Red Cross organization. In addition to family and friends, the benefactors of his heroic efforts weighed in, and so did his high school and college teachers and classmates.
“I was on the right side of my pickup when it happened,” Caleb said. “The front right rear tire of his pickup skimmed the back left corner of mine. It grazed it and all of a sudden, his pickup was going all the way into the water. His family was already up to the landing by the marina and I heard his wife yell that he was paralyzed from the waist down. I thought ‘Oh man, I have to do something’, so I immediately dove in. I tried to pull the door open but they were all locked and the windows were all open. I couldn’t help him undo his wheelchair, and he went all the way under in a hurry. I couldn’t see anything. When I felt his mirror, I used it as a reference, reached inside the cab and felt his arm.”
To Save a Life, He Gave Everything He Had
At that point, Caleb Amundson, a 6-foot, 2-inch, 200-pound starting offensive lineman and defensive end on the Fairbury football team and a starting forward on the Jeffs’ basketball team in high school, went into max-out mode. “I grabbed his forearm with my arm and gave everything I had to pull him out of there,” he said. “I pulled him around my waist and pulled him up to the surface. When we surfaced, another guy who’d heard the commotion came running from the marina to help me and then two other guys helped pull him up to the dock.”
Amundson said it took about 15 seconds for the truck to go completely under and hit the bottom of the lake. He estimates that he was underwater about 30 seconds to execute the rescue. “The whole ordeal must have been about two or three minutes,” he said. “It all happened so fast, I had more adrenalin than I can ever remember. From the time I heard his wheels chirping and squeaking to the time I brought him up, time just pretty much stopped for both of us.”
I asked Amundson what pushed his own quick response button. “It’s just the way my parents raised me,” he said of his dad, Chris, head of maintenance for a hog consignment operation, and his mom, Nancy, a dental assistant. “If somebody’s in need, you do whatever you can to help ‘em. That’s why I joined our local fire department. I volunteered there before going to college, so I’ve seen and been involved with some close calls. My fire chief told me you can’t wait to solve a problem when you’re in a tight spot. He told me that someday I would be involved in a situation that will just pop up out of nowhere and you have to react to it the second it does. I know I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t help that family. I had to do something, even though I was in shock just like he was.”
After Heroics, Experience Was Processed
Once he was certain the life he saved was breathing and able to communicate with those around him, Amundson addressed his own shock. “I just got back in my truck and drove it up to the landing,” he said. “I sat there by myself for quite a while, so I could process everything that had just happened. I was just trying to get in my head what all went on in that brief moment that seemed to take forever.”
The more he analyzed that moment in time, the more he realized how important it was for him to be there. “At that time, I was the only one around him,” Amundson said. “No one else was in their boats, on the dock or at the marina. It was just him and me. I don’t know how to explain what that meant. I guess I was called to be there at that specific moment. I think I was supposed to be there because he wouldn’t be alive today if I wasn’t. I don’t know. I think God put me there for a reason.
“It’s really humbled me and made me appreciate life,” said Amundson, who wants to return to Fairbury and work for local area contractors after he completes his technical training in heavy equipment operations. “I wake up happy every morning and tell myself it’s a new day and I’m the only one who can make it better,” he said. “I feel more like I control my destiny. The experience has made me look at the small things in life and appreciate my family and friends even more. I tell my parents I love ‘em because you never know when a freak accident like that can happen.”
Would Have Been Just Fine If No One Knew
Caleb’s values have not changed, but when complete strangers in both his hometown in Nebraska and his technical college in Kansas ask him about his heroic act, he hesitates. “I’m the type of person where it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t get any recognition for something like this,” he said. “My self-satisfaction comes from doing something good, and I would have been just fine without anybody but his family knowing about me saving his life.”
Then it hit an 18-year-old who won’t turn 19 until January. After thinking about Dean Terrill, his late grandfather who was the Southeast Nebraska correspondent for decades with the Lincoln Journal and Star newspaper, Caleb thought of something important to share with Nebraskans who might be reading an N-Sider blog that his family enjoys reading.
“I really looked up to my grandpa,” Caleb said. “He was the most humble man I’ve ever met or known. When I look at the life he lived, I want to live my own life like he did. I want to share what I’ve learned through all this with others, so maybe I can inspire them like my grandpa inspired me.”
Right Attitude Can Help You Surprise Yourself
A teenager knows that many readers, if not most, will say they would have “froze” instead of helping a handicapped man who could not help himself survive a nightmare that supplanted what was supposed to be an afternoon of fun and fishing with his family.
“I’ve been taught to act quickly,” Caleb said, “but everyone out there can do a lot of the same things. There are so many heroes out there in the state of Nebraska, and they’re all ordinary people like I am. I’m sure their stories are just as breath-taking as my experience was. I guess I feel lucky to be young and honored. Some of us who are in this young generation get a bad rep. But I think all of us, young and old and in between, really can do what I did.
“You don’t have to be in your 20s or 30s to accomplish something big,” he said. “If you have the will and the drive to be different, you can react the same way I did. I hope my story inspires others to show the same kind of concern that’s really more about caring than being heroic.”
Brothers Learn Why You Should Never Quit
A few weeks ago, Caleb returned to Nebraska to celebrate his little brother Chance’s 12th birthday at the Nebraska-Northwestern game. Friday he and his Iowa Hero counterpart will be honored on the same Tom Osborne Field. Caleb’s Labor Day experience helps him realize what a role model he is to his own little brother. “I’m a huge Nebraska Cornhusker fan and a huge Kansas City Chief fan, and I just want to say how much my favorite teams are inspiring so many of us right now. We saw the Hail Mary pass that beat Northwestern. We watch how both teams never give up no matter what.
“That’s the kind of role model I want to be – someone who never gives up,” Caleb said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re younger like my little brother, or you’re my age or any age – if you’re humble about yourself and take pride in everything you do every single day and have a great work ethic, you can do anything in life.”
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Voices from Husker Nation
Just had to send a note of appreciation for the inspiring story on Caleb. His parents and grandparents deserve a big pat on the back for raising him well. As a now retired volunteer firefighter, I so appreciate so many of his comments. We always have to be ready to serve at any given time. I thank God that Caleb was in the right place at the right time. David Fulton, Imperial, Nebraska