Chelsey Russell risked her own life to save her 2-year-old son from drowning. And in the end, she gave her life so that he could live.
The family of three–Russell, her 2-year-old son, and her 5-year-old daughter from Denver, Colorado–had joined Russell’s mother and brother at Lake Powell, Utah, in the summer of 2016, to create some beautiful family memories.
Russell’s father had died three years prior, and so the family made special effort to spend quality time together. The Lake Powell trip was an annual family tradition Russell had been eager to pass onto her kids. They had gone hiking earlier in the day, and then went out on a house boat on the lake. The family cruised along the picturesque lake as the kids played on the deck.
Then there was a splash.
Russell’s youngest had fallen off the boat, and without hesitation she dived in after him.
He did not have a life jacket on, and neither did she. Russell quickly caught the little boy and held him above the water even as she started to go under.
However, the boat kept moving away and could not be stopped anytime soon. Russell’s brother, Cayman Hood, swam around the boat to retrieve a small motor boat they were towing along, and cut it free with a knife.
By the time the family members were able to get to Russell and her son, she was unconscious, with her son crying on her chest.
Both mother and child were pulled aboard and CPR was administered to Russell on the boat, continuing as she was brought to Hall’s Crossing Marina for half an hour. Then she was pronounced dead.
“She was still, for whatever reason, able to keep the baby on her chest, whether conscious or unconscious,” San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge told the Gephardt Daily. She had held up her son just long enough to be rescued. The child was flown to a hospital in Arizona by medical helicopter and soon released.
Russell’s mother, Trisha Hood, told Denver Post:
“We’d just had the most incredible week, our little family. It is unfathomable how this happened.”
The 35-year-old mother was strong, athletic, and inspiring. Friends and family recalled that two days after giving birth, Russell had sat for the bar exam. She was passionate about the environment, she ran marathons and 100-mile trails, she was an accomplished lawyer, and she was a mom that other moms looked up to.
But she also had a heart condition.
Family members told the Denver Post that Russell suffered from a rare heart condition that gave her an abnormal heart rhythm, and perhaps that contributed to her drowning. The condition had affected her throughout her youth, but Russell had been able to manage it as well as help others with the same issue. She was an active volunteer at the American Heart Association of Denver, where she led a dynamic group of young volunteers.
“She was a lovely lady who embraced who she was and the challenges she had, and she truly lived a life that recognized she needed to live a healthy lifestyle,” said Sheila Kemper Dietrich, former executive director at the association.
The tragedy was a shock. Russell was recently divorced and had just purchased her “dream home,” her mother said, and was enjoying making new memories with her family.
At 35, she was the same age as her late father when he had his first heart attack.
Quinn Washington, a childhood friend, told Denver Post how much family meant to Russell.
“She was devastated when her father died, and she became the glue that kept the family together,” Washington said. “It’s been one hit after another.”
Co-workers at the law firm Russell worked at, Welborn Sullivan Meck & Tooley, spoke of her enthusiasm and tenacity, and “sunbeam” personality.
Her friend and former law professor, K.K. Duviver, said:
“I’m not surprised she would be the one to just jump in and save somebody, because she was like that.”
Friends and family shared that while Russell would be sorely missed, she would also be remembered as an inspiration.
Lake Powell is a popular tourist destination, and sees about 2 million people every year. It’s a reservoir of the Colorado River between Arizona and Utah, with an average depth of 130 feet.
Meri Sias, acting chief ranger at Glen Canyon, said in a statement that many fatalities at the lake were occurrences where the victims weren’t wearing life jackets. Life jackets are required for children 12 and under, but recommended for anyone going out on the water.