Nfld. & Labrador

8-year-old boy reunites with man who rescued him from roaring Manuels River

When Franke Kelly got swept away by rushing water, a nearby father of two leapt into action.

When Franke Kelly got swept away, a phys ed teacher leapt into action

Darren Colombe, his daughters Ava-Kate and Lily Beth, along with Gina Kelly and her son Franke, returned to Manuels River last week. Darren saved Franke last month when he was swept downstream by the river. (Cecil Haire/CBC)

Moments before he jumped in the Manuels River and saved a young boy from peril last month, Darren Colombe had a feeling something wasn't right.

"The water down by the bridge, it was quite treacherous," he said during an interview with CBC News at the river with his twin daughters. "The girls told me this is not normal, and that kept me on alert."

The three were cooling off in a popular area near a gazebo on the river on a sunny Friday afternoon, but the calm mood ended abruptly when they saw someone was in trouble. 

"We were over by the river and then we were like, 'Dad! Dad! There's someone drifting down the river,'" said Colombe's 10-year-old daughter Ava-Kate.

Twin sister Lilly-Beth saw it too. "I see a head in the water," she said. "It was scary because he went under the water and then came back up."

The boy was eight-year-old Franke Kelly, who was wading in the water with his mother when fast-moving water swept him away. "He got away from me really fast," said his mother, Gina Kelly. "I still close my eyes and I see him floating away from me."

She ran along the shoreline looking for a spot to jump in and saw a man in pursuit of her son.

I could hear the panic in Franke's voice and he was screaming for me.- Gina Kelly

That man was Colombe, and he was in the right place at the right time.

Colombe, a physical education teacher at Leary's Brook Junior High, said while his daughters sounded the alarm, he stayed calm.

"I heard other people screaming and when I looked over I saw Franke floating down. I kind of had no choice. I didn't hesitate. I ran along the rocks, I flicked my phone down and jumped in."

Suspecting his leg hit a rock, he did not kick his feet.  "I was just using my arms only. Both of us were floating, and I was getting closer."

Franke was swept down the river and plucked from the water just past the bridge. (Cecil Haire/CBC)

'You're not going anywhere this time'

He caught up with the boy and grabbed him underneath the Manuels River Bridge. But his work wasn't over.

"I had him and then he got sucked under for a few seconds. It was a small little panic and he popped right back up again," said Colombe.

The water levels on Manuels River were much higher and swifter when Franke was swept away, than as seen here two weeks later. (Cecil Haire/CBC)

A few strokes more and Colombe had him again. He held the boy over his head.

"It was a little worrisome for a second. When I got him the second time I knew, 'OK, you're not going anywhere this time.'"

Watching in horror, Gina Kelly was beyond relieved to see a stranger save her son.

"I saw them both slow down and I knew they were OK," she said. "I could hear the panic in Franke's voice and he was screaming for me and at that point I just jumped in."

"It was a beautiful ending to a scary little day," Colombe said.

A time to reflect, in safety

Colombe, Kelly and their kids went back to Manuels River this week to speak with CBC News.

"This is the first time back here since it happened and it's just flashback after flashback," Colombe said. "The river now is nothing like it was that day. None of these rocks were visible. The river was raging, it was slippery."

Colombe said once he was in the water, he was confident he would get to Franke before the boy reached the steep rapids further downstream, beneath the bridge.

"When I [saw] him jump in the water, I was scared," Ava-Kate said of her father. "My heart was beating super-fast. I didn't know what was going to happen."

While Colombe downplays his bravery that day, the children don't let him off that easy. 

"I was really happy for him," said Lily-Beth. "It's like he was like a hero."

The Kelly family also call Colombe their hero. The rescuer is simply glad no one got hurt.

"[Franke] doesn't have a scratch on him — he's able to enjoy his summer, we're all able to enjoy our summer," Colombe said.

In an interview with CBC soon after the incident last month, Kelly said she wanted parents to know the dangers of not knowing or underestimating fast-flowing rivers this time of year.

Colombe agreed. He wasn't familiar with Manuels River either, until he found himself being carried downstream after Franke.

"The river is beautiful but can be dangerous if you're not careful," he said. "The rapids down below, if you end up in that, you're in a bit of trouble. Visit but be careful."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Cec Haire


Cec Haire reports for CBC News from St. John's.