Dennis Dixon’s decision on a bitterly cold Wednesday night – the hardest he says he’s ever had to make – will likely play in his mind for days to come. But it’s not one he’ll ever regret.
A day after rescuers fished his 5-year-old son, Connor, from the Catawba River, father and son played in their front yard, where toy guns, swords and trucks are strewn on the grass and porch. The family dog – “the real hero,” according to Dixon – played with a squeaky shoe and chomped down on tree branches.
Watching close by was Jessica Dixon, the mother who spent hours in a panic on Wednesday when she thought her son had drowned.
Connor, not one to sit still, his parents said, seemed unaffected by the chilly afternoon. He climbed up a rail, jumped from his porch, played T-ball by himself and rode a Little Tikes bike. His father watched him closely.
Just hours earlier, their surroundings were not so pleasant. Stranded on a log in a raging river, Dixon faced potentially tragic choices.
The water was rising. The current was strong. The sun was setting, and the temperature was dropping. Dixon’s cellphone was lost in the river, and his 5-year-old son was tired, hungry and crying.
Dixon, a 25-year-old former Marine who has served deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, was soaking wet from his waist down. Connor was wet up to his shins and shivering. Diesel, the charcoal-colored pit bull the Dixons have owned since he was just a few weeks old, was shivering, too.
No one would know how to find them.
“It was already kind of a crappy deal,” Dixon said from his home in Lancaster on Thursday. “I remember the news saying it was going to be below freezing.”
So he considered his options.
If he continued pulling his son and dog in a small paddle boat he found in the river, it’s possible the boat could have flipped. If he left his son on the log, swam to shore and tried flagging down help, it’s possible Connor would have drowned.
“If we stayed there, somebody was going to die,” Dixon said.
His son, oblivious to the situation, told his dad to go find help. Dixon agonized about the thought. Then, he left.
“I don’t know if anybody can understand how hard it was leaving your son,” he said. Getting him help, “that was my driving factor.”
Connor Dixon, his family says, was born to be outdoors. The 5-year-old scouts for deer, rides four-wheelers and romps in the woods.
“Me and my little son, we go nature-walking all over the place,” Dixon said. “Wherever I go, he goes. What I do, he does. He’s a very outdoors kind of kid.”
His father was the same way as a boy, said Melanie Knight, Dennis Dixon’s stepmother, who described Connor as “fearless.”
“You can’t keep him in,” she said. “If they’re not hunting, they’re fishing.”
Dixon works on the weekends. During the week, he and Connor, who will enter kindergarten in the fall, spend as much time together as possible, visiting local parks and hunting deer. They’ve even been zip-lining.
At about 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dixon decided to take his son and dog on a different type of “adventure walk” to the Catawba River, where he’s fished dozens of times. They walked along the rocks jutting across the river. They made their way halfway when suddenly the water level began to rise and the current became stronger. He does not recall hearing any warning sirens.
Officials who operate the Fishing Creek Hydro Station, which controls water levels along the river, use an audible siren and light to warn the public when water will be moved, said Erin Culbert, a Duke Energy spokeswoman. Those sirens, she said, are tested monthly and Duke Energy had no indication that the ones at the dam were not working.
She said the Dixons and Diesel were not at the actual hydro station but “a bit downstream, where the diversion dam guides water going from the old riverbed channel.” She said the area has signs posted to warn of potential danger.
“We will certainly look for opportunities to enhance (signage) if that seems to be helpful in a situation like this,” she said. “We’re still waiting to learn more about the circumstances.”
For Dixon, the circumstances were grim.
“I was preparing to possibly stay there all night and keep everybody warm,” Dixon said. “But the more (Connor) was shivering and I was shivering and the dog was shivering, it wasn’t looking good.”
The threesome were stalled halfway in their attempts to make it back to shore. As water continued to gush, Dixon managed to hoist his son and dog onto a log beneath a tree.
“I started thinking what I could do,” he said. “I kept trying to stay positive. I didn’t want to freak (Connor) out. I didn’t want him to sit there and panic.”
“I was cold, I was freezing,” Connor said, adding that “my hands started itching.”
Dixon said his son came up with the idea that would save their lives. He told his dad to leave and get help.
“At first, he wanted me to take the dog with him,” Dixon said. Dixon opted to leave Diesel behind, hoping the dog would be able to keep his son warm. He tied Diesel to a tree and prayed that Connor would stay put.
He jumped into the water and swam against the rapids with all the strength he could muster. It took him 15 minutes to make landfall. He trudged up a hill that led to the highway. As he encountered thorny bushes, he took off his shirt, realizing that an ice shield would likely form over his clothes if he kept them on.
He went to the road and screamed, waving his hands to flag down drivers. After several passed, a woman and man finally stopped.
“I was able to tell them what was going on,” Dixon said, adding that he pointed to the exact spot his son was still waiting. They called for help.
Paramedics immediately put Dixon in an ambulance and sent him to the hospital after they told him he was beginning to suffer from possible hypothermia. His skin was blue and red, he had trouble breathing and his body was numb.
Still, he wanted to stay. For nearly two more hours, more than 60 emergency personnel – most of them from Lancaster – searched the river for Connor. From his emergency room bed, Dixon tried explaining that his son was in the middle of the water – not on the banks.
Meanwhile, still on the log, Connor watched as rescue crews kept “going that way and that way and that way and that way.” They did not find him and Diesel until crews used thermal imaging equipment to track his body heat. Dixon says they also spotted an orange reflector collar around Diesel’s neck.
“They put me in a boat, a helicopter, an ambulance and a truck,” Connor said. “It was fun.”
Waiting on a log, though, was “not fun.” Paramedics gave him “hot packs” and “five snacks,” he said holding his right hand outward.
Dixon credits his survival with the willpower he learned in the Marines: “If I hadn’t been through what I’ve been through ... I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the guts or will to keep going,” he said.
When the family left the hospital, Dixon praised his son for staying put on the log. Connor fell asleep on his dad’s shoulders.
On Thursday, Connor ran and played.
Jessica Dixon, seven months’ pregnant with a baby boy she’ll name Korbin, watched and laughed. Wednesday night, she cried and was frantic.
“I’m grateful,” she said, although admitting that while her son and husband survived their ordeal, “I’m still trying to breathe.”