"Hero" sits uneasily on Mike Schmidt's shoulders.
He unconsciously shifts as he talks about what happened Friday night, as if to dislodge the notoriety. His training as a firefighter stood him in good stead when he saved a young woman's life, but it was mostly "old-school" firefighter instinct that helped him ride a Jeep sinking into 25 feet of water down far enough to get the door open.
"A higher power put the key players there," he said. "I knew how deep the water was because I fish there a lot. My background trained me to stay calm. My friend was there with me to help. And a security guard was there to call 911. None of us could have managed without the others."
It was only after 23-year-old Alex Stewart was safely on the shore of Lewisville Lake that the impact of what happened hit him.
"They never would have found her," he said. "If she had drowned in the Jeep, her body would not have floated out. No one would have known what happened to her. She would have been a missing person."
Schmidt, 38, has been a Denton firefighter for 10 years, with stints in Midland and Highland Village before that. He lives in Hickory Creek with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, and he fishes to relieve the stress of a dangerous job. He was off duty Friday night. He and his friend Doug Lovell and Lovell's 11-year-old son were fishing off the dock at Lewisville Marina near Sneaky Pete's restaurant, a popular hangout for young people.
Stewart, of Plano, could not be reached for this story. But Schmidt said she left Sneaky Pete's about 11 p.m. Heading for Interstate 35E, she took a wrong turn down a dark road. It led to a platform for a crane to haul yachts out of the lake. She told the men later that she was text messaging when suddenly there was no road under her. First there was space. Then there was water.
"We heard something that sounded like an explosion," Schmidt said. "I could see headlights floating on the water. It wasn't like we huddled up and said, 'you do this and I'll do that.' I jumped over a gate and threw my wallet and cellphone down and jumped in. I swam over and got on the hood so I could see how many people were inside."
Lovell dove in to help. The Jeep began to nose down, sinking in about 25 feet of water. Schmidt could see the young woman inside screaming. She was kicking the windshield with her bare feet.
"I knew I had one chance to grab her. One shot," he said. "I remember my ears popping. I remember the taillights going down. I knew I wasn't going to get the door open until the pressure equalized."
In those circumstances, a vehicle must be fully submerged before the doors will open. As soon as he could get the door open, water rushed inside and the Jeep began to sink quickly to the bottom. He grabbed the young woman and swam to the surface, where he handed her to Lovell. The two swam to the boatlift and a ladder Schmidt knew was there.
A security guard had called 911, and soon Lewisville firefighters arrived. Schmidt was in full paramedic mode by that time, checking the cuts on the woman's feet and making sure her vital signs were good.
"She asked Doug, 'Did I just nearly die?' and he had to tell her yes. There were a lot of tears and hugging after that," Schmidt said.
Area television stations learned of the incident and have kept Schmidt's telephone ringing, asking for interviews. It makes him uncomfortable, he said. What he needs right now is to talk to his "brothers," his fellow firefighters, to debrief, to understand how and why it happened.
"Firefighters talk about 'making the grab.' We all want to help people. We all want to rescue a child from a burning house. I always wanted to make the grab. I just didn't know that for the higher power, it was my night, off duty, to make the grab."
In an emergency such as a traffic accident or a fire, firefighters bring control to an uncontrolled situation, he explained.
"But I couldn't control this. I didn't have my guys to back me up or any equipment," Schmidt said. "Doug told me he didn't have a clue what to do. He said, 'When I saw you go down, I was going after you.' He's a family man with four kids. That was such a show of love it just blew me away." Assistant Fire Chief Mark Klingele said the incident shows that a firefighter is never really off duty.
"Mike's an old-school firefighter who relies on his instincts," Klingele said. "We couldn't be more proud of what he did or who he is as a person. This is not just a job to Mike. He wants nothing more than to do the right thing."
Schmidt said he hopes the young woman receives counseling. The trauma of the experience is hard for even him to get over, he said. He has his "brothers" to talk to, and she will need someone as well, he said.
Modern firefighting techniques balance what is at risk with the risk firefighters take. No more do men without protective equipment rush into abandoned buildings to save them, he said. Protocol demands a considered balance of risk versus gain.
Some civilians would not have jumped into deep water to save a drowning woman, he said. Though he would wish it not to be true, some firefighters wouldn't do it either, he said.
"I'd like to think that anyone would have done what I did," Schmidt said. "I do what I do because that's what I would expect for my family and friends."
Republished with permission from The Denton Record-Chronicle