IT WAS A SIZZLING June day on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, and Sammy Armstrong couldn’t wait to get in the water.
The ten-year-old was on a camping trip at McKinney Falls State Park with his mom, Kelley, his dad, Stacey, and his brothers, Ben, eight, and Willy, two.
Around 11 a.m., Sammy’s mother and little brother Ben dropped the family kayak into Onion Creek, which meanders through the park’s 750 acres, and paddled off. Sammy and Willy accompanied their dad to Upper Falls, which marks the point where placid Onion Creek plummets 12 feet over a rock ledge. At the top of the waterfall, a limestone pathway traverses the creek bed. Below is a swimming hole, 20 feet deep in some places.
With his father watching from the rocks above, Sammy jumped in. He was a good swimmer—he’d been on the swim team in his hometown of Cypress, Texas. Sammy played in the water for a while, eventually pulling himself out of the swimming hole and onto a warm boulder and watching a group of children tramp through the creek bed above. They were summer campers from Austin who, along with their counselors, were headed back to the visitors’ parking lot after a morning hike. As the kids passed Stacey and Willy, a tiny five-year-old girl reached down to grab a water bottle and lost her balance. In an instant, she was swept over the falls.
“A girl went over the waterfall!” Stacey shouted. Sammy caught a glimpse of the girl’s arm and the top of her dark head as the roiling currents pushed her into the hollow beneath the rock ledge, hiding her from the crowd above. She bobbed up and down, struggling in the deep water. “I’m kind of freaked out at this point,” Sammy says now.
His father, with Willy clasped under one arm, walked toward the edge of the waterfall to try to locate the girl, but Sammy was the one in striking distance. “You have to get her out of there!” Stacey yelled down to him. Sammy was nervous, but “my dad just looked at me, and I understood what I had to do.”
Years in the Boy Scouts had taught Sammy never to enter a dangerous situation without an exit strategy. The ten-year-old took a few seconds to consider the situation, then he dived in, cutting through the churn of the waterfall. In a few seconds, he was next to the struggling girl. Panicking, she tried to climb on top of him. “I went under for a little bit, then came back up,” Sammy says. “I stayed calm, but inside, my heart was going about Mach 5.”
Treading water an arm’s length away from the girl, he asked her if she could swim. When she said no, Sammy carefully pulled her onto his back and followed the rock wall’s slick contours around the edge of the waterfall toward the shore.
Soon, someone threw a swim float from the bank and pulled both kids from the water. The little girl sprawled on the ground, coughing and too stunned to cry.
When Kelley walked onto the scene after her kayaking trip with Ben, she saw the crowd gathered near the swimming hole, and her heart sank. Then a woman came up and told her that Sammy had saved a little girl’s life. “Sammy says he couldn’t do it now,” says Kelley. “But I know he could because of who he is.”
Now a seventh grader, Sammy admits, “When I got in the water, I didn’t really think about the consequences.”