CAMBRIDGE, Minn. - An Isanti County Deputy says he was simply doing his job, but three county residents have a different take, saying they might not be alive if it wasn't for Alex Schlangen.
"He is the beneficiary of my will," laughed Shorty Nelson as she reflected on the unexpected arrival of Schlangen in her life.
Nelson was with her boyfriend Bill Jensen and his elderly father Monday night, coming home from dinner and slowly navigating a remote stretch of County Highway 1 around 10:30 p.m. when treacherous conditions got the best of them. Bill was behind the wheel of his Dodge Caravan when he hit a patch of ice and felt the vehicle swerve. Jensen describes steering into the skid, then hitting a dry patch of road which launched the van towards the shoulder and a steep embankment. Next thing he remembers is the van rolling, finally coming to rest upside down in a swamp, with frigid water pouring in.
"We were upside down in a swamp, a pretty frightening situation," Jensen recalls. "There was water coming in, it was cold, and we couldn't get any doors open."
The three managed to get out of their seatbelts and onto their hands and knees on the van's roof, water from the swamp rising with each passing moment. Shorty was able to find her purse, grabbed her cell phone, and dialed 911. She describes the dispatcher's voice as that of an angel.
"That was the sweetest voice I had heard in a long time, when she said 'Oh, I know exactly where you are, help is on the way.' It was like 'Oh, thank God..." Nelson shared.
That help came in the form of Deputy Schlangen, who was just three or four miles from the crash scene when the 911 call came in. Schlangen remembers the conditions as extremely treacherous, recalling that he slid right through the scene as he drove up.
"Right when I got out I heard em tapping on the glass, and I knew right away I had to get these guys out because they were screaming 'help, get us out of here,'" Schlangen said.
The deputy made his way down the steep embankment, then took his baton and began breaking windows so the three could escape. "He got there so fast, busted out windows and got us out, we didn't have time to think about anything," Shorty told reporters.
Schlangen said he helped both Nelson and Jensen up the embankment, then was told Jensen's father was still inside the van and was not able to move well due to two artificial knees. The deputy described going back down into the swamp, pulling the elderly man out of the vehicle and then sliding him up to the road so he wouldn't have to stand, and perhaps fall.
At that point warmth was imperative, so the four of them climbed into Schlangen's squad car to wait for the ambulance.
"He said, 'Oh it was nothing' over... and over," said Jensen, recalling the deputy's response when they thanked him. "It WAS something. It was very heroic. He saved our lives, and I can't thank him enough."
Schlangen drove his three new friends home after they were checked out by an ambulance crew, went back to the Sheriff's Office to change into a dry uniform... then went back to work for the final seven hours of his shift. The deputy downplayed his actions and any notions that he is a hero, but said he was happy to be in that place... at that time.
"I'm glad I could be there with them, and meet these great people."