‘Get there, save them:’ Officer talks about Mill Race water rescue

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Columbus Police Officer Andrew Plank talks about rescuing a mother and her 8 year old daughter from East Fork White River at Mill Race Park in Columbus, Ind., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Saturday afternoon first responders were called to Mill Race Park for a water rescue. Plank was the first on scene, stripped off his gear and rescued the mother and daughter from the river.

Columbus Police Officer Andrew Plank is right. The water does look deceiving.

Bugs skip across the surface, and every ripple they leave is visible. There’s the reflection of a passing train, and the water is so still that it looks just like the real thing. But the water looking calm doesn’t mean it is calm – let alone safe.

Beneath the surface are strong, unpredictable currents. And Plank knows this.

So, on Saturday, when Plank heard the call for a water rescue at Mill Race Park, there was one thought in his mind: “I have to get there.”

“We’ve been to many of these where the outcome is not as good,” said Plank.

There were a number of things that had to go right in the successful rescue of a mother and her 8-year-old child. Plank arrived at the park in around two minutes, officers said and there was a group of people who pointed Plank in the direction of the mother and child. Plank ran until he spotted them.

“I was just thinking get there, save them,” Plank said.

Downstream, the mother was holding onto a branch near the middle of the river, as well as her child. Plank saw her shaking, and recognized it as a sign of muscle fatigue. He knew that for the rescue to be successful, it had to happen in that moment.

That’s when he made the split second decision to take off his belt and vest, and begin swimming, despite being the first one on the scene.

“I did what anyone would do,” said Plank.

But just because anyone would’ve done it, doesn’t mean anyone could’ve done it.

Plank, now in his 10th year with the Columbus Police Department, also served in the Marine Corps. During his time in the Marines, he took part in a swim course that taught rescue swimming.

He said he learned how to swim in a number of different circumstances, with or against the current, and how to save people who may be drowning. Plank said that without the Marines, he wouldn’t be the person he is.

Due to his quick reaction, Plank was able to get the mother and child to safety. Officers said he first placed the 8-year-old on his back to swim to shore, and then returned to help the mother to the bank.

“My adrenaline was going pretty hard, and once we got on to the bank and medics had them, it was just this relief,” he said.

“I’m just so thankful that the police department gives us the training needed to go out here and save lives,” said Plank.

However, there have been instances where the outcome isn’t as good and there have been lengthy searches involving recovery of bodies from the river.

The CPD offers tools to support mental health, and in addition to that, Plank tries to keep in mind what the heart of the job is to him.

“We see the worst of the worst, and what keeps me going is being able to save people, help people, and see the smiles on their faces after it happens,” said Plank. Plank also enjoys positive interaction with kids in the community, and his dream job is to be a school resource officer. He likes the idea of being able to lead by example, and show what can be accomplished through hard work.

“My mentality is if I can change one person’s life, then my whole career is worth it,” said Plank.

Following the rescue, Columbus police encouraged anyone in or around a body of water, including area rivers and streams, to wear a personal flotation device, which Plank reiterated.

“I love our community, I love people going outside and having fun, going to the parks, having a good time. However, please do it in a safe manner. If you’re coming down to the river, or any body of water, please bring a personal flotation device…Even if you don’t think you need it,” he said.