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At first, Jayson Schroer and his family thought the two boys were playing.
Schroer, 40, was sitting in the grass on May 30 near a lake in New Town, after spending the day at RibFest with his family. He noticed two brothers started splashing around in the water of a nearby lake. After about 30 seconds of splashing, “something just didn’t feel right,” Schroer said.
He made his way to the lake to check on the boys.
Amir, 11, and Aman Ellis,12, were playing by the lake while their parents, owners of Five Aces Bar-B-Que, ran a stand at RibFest. Neither boy was a strong swimmer.
Schroer could see the brothers holding onto each other as they tried to tread water. When he reached the lake, Schroer caught one of the boys with his leg just as they were going underwater. He was able to give the boy enough of a shove to get safely to shore.
The second boy was more of a challenge. He kept thrashing in the water, making it hard for Schroer to get hold of him. Schroer got knocked underwater three times as he tried to help the boy.
“This calm came over me (while I was underwater),” Schroer said. “It’s cheesy, but I heard (my captain’s) voice telling me, ‘Calm down and think.’ I thought, if I’ve got to drown, I’ve got to make sure this kid gets to shore safely.”
It wasn’t the first time he had heard such words from his captain, Joe Frey. During training, he nearly had a panic attack while running through a search-and-rescue activity. Crouched into a small space, in full firefighting gear, he suddenly had felt stuck and afraid.
“My chief opened up the lid and told me to calm down, and breathe,” Schroer said.
Schroer said that same thought process allowed him to quickly assess the lake situation, and then act, that day on the lake.
At one point, he got hit in the ribs, knocking the wind out of him.
Schroer managed to grab the boy from behind, but couldn’t gain traction to get back to shore. Barely able to see a foot in front of him underwater, he eventually pushed off a rock about seven or eight inches in diameter.
Schroer was hindered that day by another problem, too: Six months earlier, he was hurt in a traffic crash while responding to his station for a call. He said he lost control while trying to avoid an animal in the road and his vehicle flipped three times into a telephone pole. He broke 10 ribs and punctured a lung, and was still recovering.
“I wasn’t thinking about my injuries,” Schroer said. “I was just thinking about saving those kids, that’s it.”
Schroer credits everything he learned at the fire department for being able to keep a cool head and save the two boys.
“Nobody I was with, they’re not trained to react like that, so nobody knew what to do,” Schroer said. “Who knows how it would have turned out if I didn’t have proper training?”
Schroer is now enrolled in Lindenwood University’s fire and paramedic science program. He hopes to join the fire academy in January to start a full-time career, a major change from his current job in construction.
“I always liked helping people,” he said. “It’s something you’re supposed to do as a human being. When somebody’s in trouble, you’re supposed to help them.”
His 11-year-old son now wants to be a firefighter when he grows up.