Two firefighters rescue canoeists on Buffalo River

By Tammy Keith Originally Published June 23, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 21, 2013 at 10:12 a.m.
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Eilish Palmer

Brian Thomas, 27, of Conway shows the life jacket he wore May 11 when rescuing a man on the Buffalo River during a canoe trip with a group from Central Baptist Church in Conway, where Thomas is a member. The North Little Rock firefighter also helped a woman in the church group who became distressed in the river that day. Thomas said it’s imperative to wear a life jacket, not just have one in the boat.

Joseph Keen, a Conway firefighter, was just out for a little fun on the Buffalo River with a church group May 11 when he noticed a life-threatening situation.

Another member of the Central Baptist Church canoe trip, Andrew White, was drowning — and Keen and North Little Rock firefighter Brian Thomas of Conway reacted immediately to save the man’s life.

Keen, 27, said the guys on the canoe trip saw a rope swing on the other side of the river and decided to swim to it.

The water was up because of recent rains, Keen said.

“It was over our heads the whole swim over,” he said. “If you weren’t careful, the tide would take you. We should have taken our canoes over there.

“We were swimming back, and this guy started screaming, ‘Help!’ He was going up and down. You could tell he was in a lot of distress,” Keen said.

Thomas, 27, a former North Little Rock High School swim-team member and lifeguard, said he and Keen made it to shore first.

“The current was real strong,” Thomas said.

Keen said Thomas grabbed a life jacket, jumped in and started swimming to the man.

“I grabbed a canoe and paddled it out there as fast as I could,” Keen said.

Thomas said he threw the life jacket to someone who got it to the struggling swimmer.

“I was really afraid it was going to be a bad day,” he said.

Keen said he and another person got White into the boat.

“I really didn’t think we were going to make it in time — I thought we were going to be doing CPR,” Keen said.

“He said he got tired and felt like he couldn’t go any farther,” Keen said of White, adding that the man had on long pants and tennis shoes.

Thomas said the man had swallowed a lot of water and was sick to his stomach afterward.

Although White was safe, the danger wasn’t over.

Thomas said he noticed a young woman in the church group, Rachel Nesmith, 19, treading water.

“I didn’t know she was having any trouble because she was floating. I thought she was just out there to give assistance if we needed it. I said, ‘We better get out of here; we’re starting to float down the river.’ She said she was just worn out and was just floating. She knew not to get excited.

“The first thing I did, I said, ‘If I touch you, are you going to pull me under water?’”

She said she wouldn’t.

“I swam up to her and grabbed her by the arm, got one arm underneath and pulled her back to shore until it was shallow enough that we could stand,” Thomas said.

“She said, ‘Thank you; I appreciate it.’ She was real tired and just grateful.”

Nesmith said she believes she would have made it back to shore “eventually.”

“He helped me for sure,” she said.

Thomas said Nesmith’s mother came up to him at church the next day and hugged him.

Keen and Thomas said their firefighter training kicked in.

Thomas said it was “seeing a situation and knowing you had the ability to do something about it.”

“If you see somebody, you help them,” Keen said. “Once you become a fireman, it’s what you do. It’s second nature.”

Keen said there’s a lesson in the story for everyone, even himself.

“Make sure that you have a life jacket on,” he said. “We should have swam across with them. Never underestimate the current.”

Thomas echoed that sentiment.

“Everybody should wear a life jacket. They all thought it was funny that my wife, [Heather], and I wore our life jackets all day, but after that, I noticed a lot more people wearing them,” Thomas said.

“I’ve never seen a drowning victim wearing a life jacket.”

Keen, the son of Randy and Robbie Keen of Sheridan, said he graduated in 2009 with a degree in business from the University of Central Arkansas.

Being a firefighter wasn’t something he’d dreamed about as a kid.

“I always wanted to play professional football,” he said with a grin.

“I was in college, and I was doing the business thing and I went to a career fair, and a firefighter was there explaining the hours and what they do. I decided that might be the road I wanted to go down,” he said.

His first job was in 2010 with the Benton Fire Department, where he stayed two years.

He was hired by the Conway Fire Department about eight months ago.

Conway Fire Chief Bart Castleberry said he is “very proud” of Keen, and that Keen’s training paid off.

Capt. John Skinner said, “It sounds like we may have a new recruit for the swift-water team.”

Thomas, the son of Keith and Suzanne Thomas of North Little Rock, is in his seventh year in the profession.

He attended UCA and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a sociology degree and a desire to do social work.

He said he moved to Conway because his wife teaches at Ruth Doyle Middle School.

Thomas was director of an afterschool program in North Little Rock when he decided to become a firefighter.

“I got to the point I decided I wanted to make a more immediate effect in a positive way on people’s lives,” Thomas said.

He looked into becoming a firefighter “and fell in love with the idea of helping somebody who is in immediate crisis.”

Thomas is also a part-time firefighter for the Sherwood Fire Department, but he’s taken a leave of absence to go to school to become a fire department paramedic — and help save more lives.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or

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