Clifford Buswell, 08-14-04

Heroic river rescue lends solace to Knik tragedy
RECOGNITION: Helicopter crew honored for plucking surviving family to safety.
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: September 1, 2004)
PALMER -- Norm McDonald leaned out of the state Division of Forestry's firefighting helicopter, hovering just six inches above the roiling silt-gray waters of the Knik River.

It was three Saturdays ago. Just minutes earlier, 24-year-old Jennifer Buswell was filling her water tank at a riverbank dirt launch, as she often did, her two little sons waiting in the pickup.

Suddenly, the bank collapsed beneath the truck and tank trailer, sending the family into the frigid water.

Buswell grabbed 2-year-old Ryan through the driver side window but couldn't get to her 3-year-old, Clifford, according to reports from the Alaska State Troopers. The rushing water carried him away.

The three firefighters in the helicopter called on for a rare rescue were all that stood between the family and even deeper tragedy.

The three men -- McDonald, Chris Anderson and pilot Bud Roberts -- were honored for their bravery Tuesday morning in a brief ceremony at the state's forestry headquarters in Palmer.

McDonald remembered the details of that Aug. 14 rescue all too well:

As the helicopter hovered, Buswell stood feet away, waist-deep in the river, atop a trailer attached to her submerged pickup. She held her 2-year-old son, Ryan, on top of a water tank jutting out of the water.

Wearing a lifejacket, McDonald stepped out onto one of the helicopter's skids and watched it drop to the water's surface under his weight.

Then he reached for Ryan. His mother initially didn't want to let him go, McDonald said Tuesday.

"At first she was really reluctant," he said after the ceremony. "I grabbed the back of the Carhartt overalls he was wearing ... He was so brave. He was probably the least rattled of any of us."

With Ryan safely inside, the helicopter dropped the boy off with medics waiting on a gravel bar a few hundred yards away. The crew returned for Burwell and continued scouring the river looking for Clifford before finally returning to their base at the Palmer airport low on fuel.

Scores of rescuers from the Mat-Su Borough dive rescue team, Central Mat-Su Fire Department, Butte fire and ambulance, and the troopers gathered at the scene. Clifford's body was found hours later, about a mile and half away.

"Tragically, my grandson did lose his life, but I do have my daughter and one grandson alive today," Buswell's father, Bob Hicks, said in a brief but emotional speech Tuesday.

"If it wasn't for the effort of the Department of Forestry crew members doing such a fantastic job, I wouldn't have those people.

"There's no words that can express that gratitude," said Hicks, assistant Butte fire chief who lives on Knik River Road.

Hicks, his wife, and a few others at the ceremony wore photos of Clifford made into round pins, a little boy with a big smile beaming from their lapels.

McDonald was the only member of the team in town for the ceremony. Roberts and Anderson both were away, fighting fires in other parts of the state.

The Mat-Su Borough, and Mat-Su Fire Chiefs Association, presented the men with heroism awards. It's highly unusual for a forestry helicopter to do rescue work.

"This is over and above what we'd normally expect," said Ken Bullman, the forestry department's Mat-Su area forester. "These are men of action. They had a plan, they executed it safely. They helped people ... that's what we do as firefighters."

On-call for fire emergencies at the state's Palmer forestry base that Saturday afternoon, the helicopter crew got a call for help from Butte volunteer firefighters, McDonald said. The helicopter got to the river in less than five minutes, he said.

They dropped off heavy gear and two crew members. Anderson sat in front with pilot Roberts, looking for boats or obstacles and manning the radio.

Roberts, who flew helicopters during the Vietnam War, maneuvered the craft into position right next to the tank, McDonald said. "I would have felt much more uncomfortable with anybody but him."

After the ceremony ended, Hicks said his daughter, though still grieving, is doing better.

At least the family had 31/2 years with Clifford, he said, "31/2 years of his memories. A lot of good memories."

Reach reporter Zaz Hollander at or 1-907-352-6711.