Man rescues toddler from road, mother from asphyxiation

Posted: Wednesday, October 25, 2000

It was a damp, overcast day and the toddler was barefoot, dressed only in a diaper and T-shirt. Clutching a kitten in one arm and a bottle in the other, he seemed unattended as he walked toward the speeding traffic on the Kenai Spur Highway.

It was Sept. 27, and Alaska Communications System foreman Jack Roller, 55, of Kenai, was working nearby when he saw the young boy wandering toward the highway near Tinker Lane in Kenai.

He knew right away something was wrong.

"I approached him and stopped him from going onto the highway," Roller said. "I asked him where he lived, but he couldn't talk.

"He pointed at some houses, but that did not help; he pointed at the wrong one. So I just held his hand and we walked down the street knocking on doors."

Several people did not recognize the boy, but finally one woman did and pointed Roller to the right house near the corner of Kulila Place and Dolly Varden Street, he said.

The story should have ended there, with the happy reunion of child and parent.

But no one answered the door as Roller continued to knock on it. There was an open window, though, and Roller stuck his head inside to see if anyone was at home.

The scene inside left him unsettled.

"I saw a boy about 5 just standing there and a lady slumped over on a couch," he said. "I thought she was just asleep and hollered for her, but she didn't respond."

Roller couldn't get the 5-year-old boy to let him in, so he went inside through the unlocked front door. He found the woman unconscious and turning blue from lack of oxygen. He tilted her head back to clear her airway and checked her pulse before calling the police.

"The 5-year-old was just standing there. Perhaps he didn't know what to do," Roller said. "Maybe he was trying to help her."

Roller said the toddler was too little to let himself out and speculated the older boy had sent him for help. Roller stayed until the police came, gave them his name and phone number and left.

"I never even found out the woman's name," he said.

When Barbara Waters saw the police and emergency vehicles at her neighbor's home, she went to offer help with the children until Division of Family and Youth Services agents arrived.

"I didn't even know Jack was over there until he came out," Waters said of her longtime friend. "He was very shaken. He was white. He told me, 'I found her.'"

Waters doesn't mince words when describing Roller's actions.

"I think he's a hero," she said. "He saved that little guy."

Kenai Fire Chief Jason Elson said he did more than that.

"The crew that was on duty said, 'he absolutely saved that woman's life,'" he said.

Elson could not disclose any details about the woman's condition, but Roller said the medics -- identified by Elson as Captain Mike Tilly and firefighters John Harris and Jason Diorec -- had to use a hand-operated breathing mask on her.

Waters said the woman, about 30 years old, has a history of medical problems.

Roller said the two boys he found appeared to be in good health, were clean and well-fed. He said the home was in good shape, too. Waters agreed.

Roller said he did not tell anybody about what had happened and went back to work locating buried cables.

In fact, it was weeks before he said anything to anybody.

"He did keep quiet about it. That's the type of person he is," said Dan Cook, Roller's supervisor at ACS. "

But we could tell he was upset about something. It took quite an emotional toll on him."

After discovering Roller's deeds, Cook said, he gave Roller a week off to recuperate.

"It's extremely admirable what he did," Cook said. "In our work we're going a hundred miles an hour, and to come upon something like that and react to save one life and possibly another with that kid walking around, it's pretty noble."

Wayne Debnam, the business representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547 in Soldotna, also praised Roller, one of his union's members.

"Jack was shaken by what bad things could have happened to this 2-year-old while he was wandering around in a dangerous area unattended," Debnam said. "He saved a family that day and continued his work without sharing what happened for several weeks."

It's not the first time Roller had saved a life while on the job. Thirty years ago, he said, he and his partner were driving across an overpass in Santa Barbara, Calif., and came upon a woman who was hanging over the railing, trying to pull herself over it.

"She probably wanted to die, but we jumped out of our truck and grabbed her," he said. "We called emergency and they came and picked her up. I never heard any more about it."

Cook said it's not uncommon for telecommunications workers to come across emergency situations, since they are out in the neighborhoods every day. But Cook reasserted that Roller's actions a month ago were "an extra step further."

Debnam joined the chorus of praise for Roller.

"I have drawn my conclusion, and I am proud to call my IBEW brother Jack a real neighborhood hero," he said.

A modest man, Roller hesitates to accept the title.

"I don't think I did anything that anybody else wouldn't do in that position," he said. "I don't think people would drive on down the road if they saw a little kid walking along there. I was just helping a neighbor and my community."

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