The first time Tim Davenport saw the Yellowstone River, there were two boys on an island in it, screaming for help.
A friend, Mark Palmer, brought Davenport to Mystic Park on Friday to see the Yellowstone River for the first time since Davenport moved to Billings about 10 months ago from Houston. They met last summer when Davenport, 19, needed a ride. Palmer offered to help.
The original plan Friday had been to take in the river from the South Billings Boulevard bridge that crosses south of Riverfront Park, but the two were running behind schedule and running out of sunshine, so Palmer changed course. And so the two were at Mystic Park, in the final minutes of daylight, walking toward a snow-covered hillside overlooking the river when Davenport heard shouting from ahead.
"When I got up here I just seen two people, like, with sticks in their hand, barely able to walk, screaming for help, waving us down," Davenport said.
At one point the boys, who weren't wearing winter clothing, got into the water and made as if they were going to swim to shore. Davenport and Palmer shouted at them to get back onto the island and the boys did.
It was about 4:30 p.m. when Palmer dialed 911. That act would set off a rescue effort that lasted less than two hours involving a raft and later a helicopter navigating nighttime conditions on the river and above it.
The Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office, Billings Fire Department, Billings Police Department, American Medical Response and Billings Flying Service all responded to help.
"I would say this is the first nighttime winter rescue that we've done like that," BFD Battalion Chief Jason Lyon said.
Such rescues are rare due to the dangerous conditions faced by anyone trying to cross the Yellowstone River. Chunks of ice the size of car doors and larger floated by with regularity Friday night as specially trained rescuers with the Billings Fire Department began formulating a plan on the shore.
It was evident from the start that the stakes were high. One of the boys was on his feet and screaming for help as responders arrived. Next to him the other boy lay immobile on the ice at the edge of an island separated from the Mystic Park shore by about 60 yards. Lyon estimated they were between 10 and 15 years old.
At one point the boy shouting for help began pressing his arms frantically into the chest of the boy on the ground. Once both boys were ashore and put in ambulances, Lyon said he didn't know the exact condition of either boy, but said rescuers believed the motionless boy was alive when they reached him.
Sheriff Mike Linder said his agency believed the boys had run away from New Day Inc., an organization serving children with serious emotional issues though daytime programs, outdoor therapy, an equine program and other activities.
The first attempt to reach the island began after dark, with two specially trained members of the Billings Fire rescue team paddling an inflatable raft attached by rope to a crank on the shore. They launched upstream south of the island and tried to swing around to where the boys were on the western shore. About 40 yards from the boys the raft stalled in the water. It was about 5:20 p.m.
One of the rescuers could be heard shouting. "The rope has us pinned, we're anchored right now. There's no way we're getting there."
A second later he shouted "These ice chunks are going to flip us."
The raft was pulled back to shore, and another launch was attempted. At about 5:35 p.m., the raft landed on the south shore of the island and the rescuers began trudging across toward the boys.
At about that time the sound of a helicopter could be heard from the south. Gary Blain from Billings Flying Service had picked up his phone when Linder called, the sheriff recounted later.
"He said 'Where you at? I'll be there in 10 minutes.'"
Blain first landed along the Mystic Park shore near where the raft had launched and other rescue crews were stationed south of ambulances and fire trucks parked along the hill. He then took off and landed on the island. The boys were carried into the helicopter. Blain took off again, and landed near the ambulances. The boys were carried out and put back in.
The rescuers and their raft were still on the island.
Blain then flew back. They attached the rope to the raft, the rescuers got in the helicopter, and Blain towed the raft back to shore.
"What he did in five minutes right there could have taken us, could have taken us 30 to 40 minutes easily," Linder said.
"It would have likely exposed the patient to the frigid conditions of the river at the end, whereas moving him in the helicopter he's able to stay in a much more controlled environment," Lyon said. "I'll reiterate what the sheriff said about special thanks to Billings Flying Service for immediately coming and helping. That was huge."
Palmer put it another way. "That helicopter," he said. "He's done God's work today."
Everyone was off the island by about 5:50 p.m. The boys were taken to a nearby hospital, and by 9 p.m. it looked like they could be released soon, Lyon said.