Thankful river rescue victim does more than say thank you

"These guys saved my life"
Thursday, July 15, 2021
Article Image Alt Text

Michael Benko met four of his rescuers last week in his Stillwater Billings Clinic hospital room. (SCN photo by Marlo Pronovost)

Article Image Alt Text

Rescue crews secure Benko on a backboard before putting him on boat and traveling to the boat ramp at Indian Fort Campground, where an ambulance transported him to a hospital.(Courtesy photo)

Article Image Alt Text

Benko with Stillwater County Chief Deputy Sheriff/Search and Rescue Liason Skylar Steele and SAR vice president Jake Hover last Friday. (SCN photo by Marlo Pronovost)

Michael Benko knew his leg was broken the second he looked at his foot “off to the side” and wedged between two rocks on the Yellowstone River.

The 78-year-old Pennsylvania man and his friend had started their float at the Bratten fishing access on June 29. In the early afternoon, near the Indian Fort Campground in Reed Point, things went awry.

The boat went under the water when the men rowed into a rock with a “v.” Benko’s leg got caught in that “v,” leaving him trapped in the river and trying to keep his head above water.

“I looked up and there’s my foot. And I knew it was broke because it was off to the side,” recounted Benko. “Went up. Got a gulp of air. Went up again – water coming in (my mouth). Went up again got air. I went down four times after that.”

Unable to hold himself up, Benko found a tree root and grabbed onto it while his friend ran downshore for help. For more than 45 minutes, Benko fought hypothermia.

As luck would have it, Columbus Fire Rescue (CFR) was on the river that day practicing swift-water rescue skills and was able to locate Benko quickly.

Because of debris in the water, CFR was unable to actually reach him from the boat. Debris also prevented a second rescue boat from reaching Benko from the other direction. Two swimmers from the second rescue boat — CFR’s Kevin Langhus and Shannon Browning — made their way to Benko and managed to get him to shore. After packing him on backboard and stabilizing his leg, Benko was put in a boat and taken to Indian Fort, where an ambulance was waiting.

“These guys saved my life,” said Benko last Friday morning in his Stillwater Billings Clinic hospital room, pointing to his rescuers who had stopped by to say hello.

Those rescuers included Langhus, Browning, Stillwater County Sheriff Chief Deputy/Search and Rescue Liason Skylar Steele and SAR vice president Jake Hover — all of whom took part in the rescue.

Benko is a retired dentist who has cabin at the Cathedral Mountain Ranch in Nye and is not new to floating Montana waters. He told his rescuers last week he knew immediately the mistake the pair had made that led to the accident. He was both apologetic and thankful to those who came to his aid. He also took out his checkbook and wrote a $5,000 check.

“I know you’re all volunteer and you rely on funds from idiots like me,” said Benko, who was quickly assured that he was not an idiot.

SAR and CFR will split the money. Benko had surgery in Billings and then came back to recover in the Stillwater Billings Clinic hospital, where he said he knew the care would be great, based on a previous experience.