It is a chilly, gray Thursday afternoon, and Washougal police officer Francis Reagan is standing in quiet contemplation near the Vernon Road Bridge off Washougal River Road.
Journalists hover nearby with interview and photo requests for the officer who, nine months prior, had helped save a life on the Washougal River waters rushing below.
Surrounded by moss-covered trees and the quiet sounds of nature, it’s difficult to imagine this place as anything other than peaceful. But Reagan vividly recalls the May 2019 tragedy that led him here — the call saying a woman had fallen from her inner tube while floating in the river and become trapped by a rock and the fact that the woman’s friend, unbeknownst to police at the time, had also fallen off his tube that evening and been swept away by the river. The woman would survive, rescued by Reagan and other officers, but the man’s body would not be discovered for several months.
“It’s seared in my mind forever, not only for what we did and what we accomplished, but for the life lost,” Reagan said. “It’s a tragic, and at the same time amazing, thing. My heart goes out to the family (of the man who died). It’s horrible. Part of me doesn’t want to make it a big deal about this because a life was lost. One was saved, but one was lost. It’s a bittersweet moment. It’ll be seared in my mind as one of my top near-death experiences.”
The loss of life is why Reagan struggles just a bit to frame what he did that night in purely heroic terms. When the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs recently named him the group’s “2019 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year,” Reagan downplayed the honor, saying the rescue was truly a team effort.
Reagan received his award, designed to honor an officer who has, according to the Council, “clearly exceptional and outstanding performance of duties, which bring honor and distinction to the officer, the department and the profession,” at a Feb. 12 ceremony in Olympia, Washington.
“We are extremely proud of officer Francis Reagan and his unselfish action to protect the life of another,” said Washougal Police Chief Wendi Steinbronn.
“There is no doubt that without (Reagan’s) swift actions, the woman would have been lost to the river,” added Chris Tracy, president of the police and sheriffs’ council. “The (law enforcement officer of the year) award is an honor not only for the recipient, but for our profession.”
‘All or nothing’ river rescue
Reagan was one of the first officers to respond to a 911 call on the evening of May 4, 2019. The caller said a woman was screaming for help in the Washougal River, and Reagan knew the circumstances were deadly serious.
“I knew this was one of those once-in-a-career situations where it’s all or nothing and you have to give it your all. Otherwise, it’s not going to work out,” he said. “I knew (what to do) because I had been thinking about it the entire drive up here. I had lights and sirens on, so I was going as fast as I could, and I had about seven minutes, eight minutes to think about it. I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to grab some throw-ropes. I’m going to grab a life jacket. I’m going to get down there and we’re going to set up a tension-diagonal line. And hopefully that works.'”
After arriving on the scene, Reagan and several other Washougal police officers found the woman — later identified as Emily McCauley, 28, of Portland — submerged to her neck with her legs pinned beneath the rapidly moving water. Reagan directed his fellow officers to tie two rescue lines together. Then he put on his own life jacket and swam to McCauley.
“We basically fell down this hill and met up down there,” Reagan said, pointing to a spot near the river. “I asked them to tie two (of the ropes) together because I wasn’t sure if one was going to be long enough, and then ditched my armor, and swam just ahead of her. I went across (a few of the rocks) as fast as I could. It was about chest-deep. I tied the rope off, and those guys held on to it. I was just going to have her grab it and tell her to slide down the rope to the other shore, but she was stuck, and it was impossible.”
He says now that he had doubts about the rescue operation.
“I’d be an idiot if I said I didn’t think about those (negative) possibilities, because you should,” he said. “And yeah, at about halfway, 20 or 30 minutes into it, I was thinking I may have to watch her die in my arms from hypothermia because it just took so long for folks to get here. They were so far away, which is not anyone’s fault because this is a really remote area for rescue.”
Reagan held McCauley’s head above water for 20 minutes before members of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Camas-Washougal Fire Department arrived on the scene.
A firefighter joined Reagan in the water and they spent another 20 minutes trying to free McCauley. Then they had another set of problems.
“Our biggest challenge was what to do once we got her free,” Reagan said. “I knew it really wasn’t a good idea to tie a rope to her, although that might have worked, I don’t know. But we didn’t do that. My biggest concern was keeping hold of her once we got her free, because once you get her free, she’s free again. She might get stuck. She might drown. She might hit her head on a rock. She might get grabbed by a rescue squad and get pulled to shore, which is what happened.”
Reagan and the other first-responders also had to worry about their own safety during the rescue mission.
“You don’t want to also become a casualty. That’s the last thing that you want to do as a rescuer. Towards the end I was concerned that that was going to potentially happen,” Reagan said. “After we got swept over the rapids, I was actually not sure if I was going to make it out alive. I was holding on to the rescue rope thinking, ‘If I let go, there’s a good chance they’re going to catch me, and there’s also a good chance they’re not going to catch me because they’re concerned and involved with (the victims), so I probably shouldn’t let go.’
Reagan decided to “shimmy over to rocks” near the river’s edge, which is where other officers helped him get out of the water.
“At that point, I knew I was hypothermic and didn’t have a lot of strength left, and I was emotionally and physically drained. I didn’t have a whole lot left,” Reagan said.
McCauley was unconscious when officers rescued her from the water. After regaining consciousness at a local hospital, McCauley told law enforcement there was, in fact, another person missing in the river. According to police reports released at the time, deputies learned on May 5, 2019, that McCauley and her friend, 30-year-old Stephen Barnaby, of Portland, intended to float the Big Eddy near Washougal River Road milepost 8.
McCauley told officers she had seen Barnaby float past her, dislodged from his inner tube, after she became entrapped. Neither McCauley or Barnaby were wearing life jackets.
Despite searching for two days using multiple unmanned aircraft, ground search teams and underwater cameras, rescuers were unable to find Barnaby.
More than two months later, on July 22, 2019, Clark County Sheriff’s deputies and Clark County Fire District 6 technical rescue team members removed Barnaby’s body from the river, east of the Southeast Vernon Road Bridge.
Reagan said he tried to remain optimistic when he discovered rescuers were trying to locate Barnaby and that he didn’t know for a couple days that the search was unsuccessful.
“I didn’t know what to think for a couple of days because I wanted to stay open-minded. Maybe he got out or made it to shore and made it to a hospital as a John Doe?” Reagan said. “But then, afterward, I found out he didn’t make it, and the gravity of the situation sunk in even more.”
Navy SEAL prepared officer for rescue
Reagan spent eight years as a member of the United States Navy before joining the Washougal police force in 2014, and had training as a member of the vaunted Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) team.
Reagan credits his Navy SEAL training for his success during the water rescue.
“(Being a SEAL) helped me be comfortable in the water, and with my confidence and knowing that I was potentially hypothermic,” he said. “Also, my whole platoon had gone to North Carolina for swift water rescue certification. We spent a week in rivers just like this practicing swift-water rescue techniques and tactics. Thank God I went to that course, because it really helped.”
After Reagan decided that he didn’t want to stay in the military long-term, he began to search for a job in law enforcement, and the Vancouver native was excited to return to Clark County after accepting an offer to join the Washougal Police Department.
“It felt very natural to come back here,” he said. “I actually played in the Washougal River down at Hathaway Park when I was growing up. I was kind of familiar with the city, but not really with the police department, to be honest. But it’s been great.”
“(Reagan) is a hard worker,” said Washougal police officer Ryan Castro, who assisted with the May 2019 water rescue. “His work ethic is phenomenal. It’s been a pleasure working with him. He does a great job.”
Reagan said he loves being a police officer, but that he can’t quite articulate why. He knows that he wants to help people, and he believes working in law enforcement gives him a great chance to do just that. It’s an opportunity, he said, that he doesn’t want to squander.
“It’s humbling (to save a life), but at the same time it’s a reason to always be prepared, because you don’t know when that day will come or when that moment will come,” he said. “I always know in the back of my mind that I have a reason to stay prepared physically and mentally, because I don’t know when that moment will come again. It might be tomorrow. It might be tonight. I didn’t know that night it was going to come.”