Mason Kassian and Dustin Taylor couldn’t believe what they were hearing and seeing in the rapidly gathering dusk.
They were sitting at a picnic table with a couple of girls and playing with some dogs at Wetumpka’s Gold Star Park on the idyllic evening of March 21. Nearby, a man with a rod and reel was filling his cooler with fish off the end of the boat ramp.
Kassian and Taylor were thinking of walking back to Creed Gym to lift weights but suddenly heard sirens piercing the air, signaling the beginning of frenetic, life-changing moments fraught with peril in which they would be engaged in the workout of their lives in the cold and stygian waters of the Coosa River.
Instead of a bench press, Taylor, 21, found himself pulling two grown men away from a sinking car. In the ultimate deadlift, Kassian, 20, pulled an upside-down 2-year-old boy out of the water by his feet and pummeled the water from his lungs and throat.
Taylor and Kassian witnessed the end of a police chase where a car with three adults and the 2-year-old were fleeing Alabama Department of Corrections officers who said the adults were trying to smuggle drugs into Tutwiler Prison.
Luckily for those in the car, Kassian and Taylor ignored the “No Swimming” sign at the bottom of the boat ramp. Water nearly covered it and the man driving the car was concerned only with keeping the officers behind him, not what was in front of him in the darkness.
“We heard the sirens and a big commotion and saw a white car flying down the hill,” Taylor said. “Their windows were down. There were two or three cop cars after them. And I said, ‘They’re never going to stop in time.’ When they hit the bottom of the ramp, I saw sparks flying.”
Kassian said, “That car came through here doing every bit of 85.”
The Coosa River swallowed the car just as quickly. As Kassian and Taylor ran to the water, a woman emerged from its depths.
“Out of all the commotion, this woman was screaming, ‘My baby! My baby!’ Taylor said.
Kassian admitted he hesitated at first.
“I won’t lie, I didn’t want to go in,” he said. “But when she said, ‘My baby!’ I don’t care what race or gender they are, I’m not going to let somebody drown right in front of us. I don’t understand why she didn’t get her baby.”
“So we got in the water,” Taylor said. “We passed her swimming out there. She could swim. That water was cold, maybe 40 or 50 degrees. I said my prayers when I went in the water.”
Kassian said the man fishing off the boat ramp narrowly avoided being struck by the car as it plunged into the river but still wanted to help.
“He had a cooler full of fish and he dumped them out so we could use the cooler to give them something to float on,” Kassian said.
Taylor said he could see the car when he entered the water because people arrived with flashlights. Kassian said he had trouble finding the boy, who he estimated was 40 to 50 yards from the river bank.
“When I got to the baby, the only thing I saw was the shoes sticking up out of the water,” Kassian said. “He was upside down. I picked him up like I found him. I got him up and hit him pretty good on the back and he started spitting water up so I knew he was alive. I started swimming back holding him in my arms, keeping his head above the water. It was a (long) swim.”
Kassian began to struggle while swimming with one arm.
“I started to scream for help myself but no one came out to help me,” he said. “The Lord helped me.”
Taylor also had trouble once he reached the car and the two men with the cooler.
“Our muscles started to lock up,” he said, “and there was a time out there I thought I was going to die too. When people are drowning, they panic and when I got out to them there was one who was pulling me under. I had both guys. They were both still there at the car. I told them to hold onto the fish cooler. One guy did and the other guy grabbed me. I pushed off the car and the one guy started to slip away. I tried to grab him but he just went down; the current got him. The other guy was holding onto the cooler and I grabbed him by the foot and swam him in.”
Kassian said Garrison Hancock, one of the girls with them at the park, got in the water to take the boy as Kassian approached shore.
“I handed the baby off to Garrison,” he said. “She swam out a little way and she was trying to help but she didn’t get far so she handed him back to me and finally I got to the boat ramp and I could touch bottom.”
Kassian said he didn’t get a chance to talk with the mother of the boy who was plucked from certain death.
“She was in handcuffs,” he said.
Authorities also clamped handcuffs on the man when Taylor got him to shore.
Kassian said he later talked with the boy’s uncle and grandparents and they thanked him. And he wants to meet the 2-year-old who is unlikely to remember the night Kassian saved his life but owes his future to him.
“I didn’t think it was all that much,” Kassian said. “Any person in their right mind who could swim would have done it. I hope other people would have done that. God had us here at the right time.”
The Elmore County High School graduates have accepted praise with humility.
“Our family and friends are very proud,” Taylor said. “Our teachers in high school have posted it all over Facebook.”
Saving those lives also reinforced their dreams; Taylor wants to be a firefighter and Kassian an Alabama State Trooper.
Even the man who emptied his cooler of fish experienced a happy ending.
“When we got back up there, he got his cooler back and saved his fish,” Kassian said.
Rufus Brown, 31, and Jonisha Jordan, 21, both of Montgomery, were charged with attempting to commit a controlled-substance crime, first-degree possession of marijuana and endangering the welfare of a child, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. The body of the driver was recovered later that night and his identity has not been released.