(Update: Adding video, more comments from Vardanega)
REDMOND, Ore. (KTVZ) – A Terrebonne woman said it was a higher power that put her in the right place at the right time Tuesday evening. She spotted a toddler running across Highway 97, so she pulled over, chased after and ended up diving into an irrigation canal to rescue the 2-year-old boy after he fell in and went under.
“I’m grateful that I reacted,” Bailey Vardanega told NewsChannel 21 Wednesday. “I’m grateful I got to listen to God and have him tell me what to do, and have the opportunity to save someone.”
Police thanked and hailed the woman as a hero after she jumped into the water, rescued the submerged child and brought him to shore. His grandmother was cited for child neglect, according to police, who hailed the passer-motorist’s heroic actions.
Police responded around 5:45 p.m. to the highway near Northeast Larch Avenue on a report of the young boy run across the highway and subsequent reports he’d fallen into the Central Oregon Irrigation District canal, Lt. Jesse Petersen said.
Vardanega said she was driving north on Highway 97, heading home from work, when she saw a man later identified as the toddler’s father flagging down vehicles, then spotted the child running across the highway -- barefoot She pulled over and saw the boy run through the grass and through a fence that separates the canal from the road, Petersen said.
Vardanega said she was worried the child was going to run into the canal, so she got out of her car, crossed all four lanes of traffic and followed the child as he ran toward the canal. As she tried to catch up, she saw the boy fall in.
At that point, the woman jumped the fence, dove into the canal and swam to the now-submerged child, who the lieutenant said “had ingested some water and was at serious risk of drowning,” Petersen said.
Vardanega told NewsChannel 21, "I just start swimming, and I swam and I swam. I'm watching him go up and down and fighting -- a 2-year-old fighting in water. I get about a couple strokes from him, and he stopped fighting, and he was face-down, and his arms were up.”
Petersen said she grabbed hold of the boy and swam with him back to the east side of the canal, where he was reunited with his father.
The child coughed up some water, but was breathing. Petersen said Redmond Fire & Rescue medics took the boy to St. Charles Redmond, where he was evaluated and later released.
“You know that dream where you running and trying to get somewhere, and you just can’t because your legs aren’t working?” Vardanega said. “My legs were faster than I’ve ever run, and I swam more aggressive than I ever swam.”
“God’s in control,” she said. “He had me in the right place at the right time, and I allowed him to use my body as he needed.”
“You don’t think twice on those things," she added. "It's not what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to help, and help one another -- especially the innocent that don’t know -- that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
The Redmond Realtor and mother of two boys, 4 and 2 ½, said, “I’d want anybody to do the same for my child. I know in my heart, I’m not a hero. I’m just a sheep of God – he’s my shepherd. He just uses me as I ask him to.”
Petersen said a preliminary investigation found that the toddler was in the care of his paternal grandmother, who was babysitting him at a home on Northeast Third Street, east of where the child was found.
The grandmother said she didn’t notice the child was missing until police contacted her to ask about his location, according to the lieutenant.
The boy’s father, meanwhile, had been walking home from the area of Grocery Outlet when he spotted his son running across Highway 97.
The grandmother, Jodie Ewing, 51, of Redmond, was cited for second-degree child neglect, Petersen said. The case was referred to the state Department of Human Services and the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office for further review.
Petersen noted that it is illegal in Oregon for a person who has custody or control of a child under 10 to leave the child unattended in any location for such a period of time as may be likely to endanger the child’s health or welfare.
"The Redmond Police Department and Redmond Fire & Rescue would like to acknowledge the heroic act the adult female from Terrebonne, Oregon, made yesterday," Petersen said in a news release.
“She put herself in great danger when she selflessly crossed a busy four-lane highway and jumped into the cold canal to save the life of a 2-year-old child she didn’t know,” he added. “She is a hero, and we would like to thank her for the bravery and selflessness she displayed last night.
Petersen said Redmond police were continuing to investigate the incident. Any witnesses or people with further info are asked to contact the department through Deschutes County dispatch at 541-693-6911.