Retired Ohio Firefighter Meets Girl He Saved from Drowning 42 Years Ago

The retired Sharon Township firefighter and the NASA scientist shared a long-awaited hug.


July 02--He remembers the blond hair, the bobbing head, the lifeless body they pulled from the chilly water that evening. Her dad cried from the banks of the Olentangy River: Save my child. Save my child.

And so Gary Wing worked and worked, desperate to get a breath out of that little blond girl. His partner thought it was too late. Wing, then a Sharon Township firefighter, said he wasn't going to stop until the medics arrived.

"She was just as limp as a rag doll," he said.

Wing paused. He knew how the story ended, at least that part of it. He jumped ahead to what brought him there yesterday, a 70-year-old retired firefighter standing outside a Worthington restaurant, his pocket stuffed with tissues.

"I don't know why I waited so long to find this girl," he said.

Yesterday, it had been 42 years, three months and three days since Diana Blaney's canoe overturned at a small dam in the Olentangy and the 9-year-old Ashville girl was plunged into the churning water.

Blaney lived. She did more than live. She grew up and went to college and went to more college and ended up working as a planetary scientist in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Yesterday, back home for a family visit, she decided to meet the man who'd pumped her chest and breathed for her all those years ago.

"I was really shocked," she said. "Gary kind of called me up out of the blue."

She is 52 now. She lives in California and likes to boogie-board. She remembers only that a canoe tipped, and that she was trapped and that everything went black. She was hospitalized, on a respirator, for nearly a week. When she woke up, the doctor told her she could eat anything she wanted.

"Lobster," she said.

She moved on, and Wing moved on. She didn't remember him; he forgot about her.

In 25 years, Wing's wife, Deborah, never heard a word about what had happened. He retired in 1994, after 30 years with the department, and started driving a truck for beer money. At some point, his mind wandered to the 9-year-old who nearly drowned.

It was a bucket-list thing. He wanted to find her.

He tackled the project with a fervor that surprised even Deborah. He began researching the incident, returning to where it happened, seeking out the couple who saw the canoe tip. He made notes on old news stories: "Diana Blaney 9 ... I was 28 ... 42 yr ago." He asked a librarian if she could help him find Blaney.

The search proved stunningly easy.

Whatever number the librarian gave him got him directly to Blaney at NASA. She picked up on the first call. They were both too choked up to have much of a conversation, but they tried again the next day. Eventually, they made plans to meet.

So there he was yesterday, and then there she was. She stepped outside the restaurant to meet him, and he wrapped her in a hug. They pulled back and looked at each other and said things like, " Oh, my" and "Oh, wow," because what do you say to the woman whose life you saved, or to the man who saved yours? Wing beamed.

"You know," he told Blaney, "I've been closer to you than that hug."

She smiled sheepishly. "I have very few memories of the actual drowning ..." she started, but Wing kept grinning.

"Can I hug you again?" he said.

lkurtzman@dispatch.com

@LoriKurtzman

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