Grace: Nebraska native a hero after jumping into Chinese river, rescuing drowning woman -
Published Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 9:42 am
Grace: Nebraska native a hero after jumping into Chinese river, rescuing drowning woman

He saw the young woman struggling in the river and had to act.

But it was only on his way down, 32 feet from the Shanghai promenade to the brown-gray water below, that three distinct things occurred to Nebraska native Edward Poels.

The first was a surreal desire to holler: “Ger-on-i-mooooooooooo!”

The second was fear of what might lie beneath. Rock? Debris?

Which brought Poels to his final thought: his 6-year-old daughter, Samantha.

Don't screw this up, the 51-year-old told himself.

Then he hit the water.

* * *

When I learned about this homeboy Nebraskan and his recent heroics in China, it made me think of all the other Everyday Joes who jump into harm's way to help someone, typically a stranger.

They rush into burning buildings, they face an oncoming train, they go places we are hard-wired to avoid.

What compels them?

And would I, chicken-hearted as I am, have the guts?

So my biggest question to Poels about his jump into the river is: Why?

Because, he said, she was in trouble and running out of time.

Because no one else was doing anything.

Because he could.

* * *

Edward Poels was the right person in the right place at the right time.

How he wound up four weeks ago on the Bund, a milelong elevated promenade along the Huangpu River, at precisely the moment a 22-year-old woman was sinking, was a matter of both choice and serendipity.

An expat from Grand Island and a Creighton University graduate, Poels has made China his home since 2001. He runs an export business. He has a Chinese wife, Yao Weiqing. They have a daughter, Samantha.

The three have built a life on the 26th floor of an apartment building in a city of 23 million. They grow tomatoes on the balcony. They get dim sum takeout. They go sailing on Poels' 19-foot sailboat, the “Black Pearl,” and when he's feeling particularly nonconformist, they let Samantha commit a big no-no. When the sprinklers turn on at a big public park, he tells her: Run!

Poels runs, too. He goes for an hour-plus every day, through the streets of Shanghai.

Normally, he runs in the morning. But on this Monday, Oct. 14, he stopped after 500 yards and promised himself to hit the pavement in the afternoon.

Sure enough, hours later, Poels was out the door again. This time, he decided to ditch his usual route and run a few miles extra.

By the time he hit the Bund, Poels uncharacteristically paused to take in the sights.

The Customs House clock chimed once, twice, three times to signal the afternoon hour. Poels watched the boats roll on the river.

Then he turned to run again but stopped at the commotion.

There was shouting. A security guard was running full-speed. A crowd had gathered near the edge and was pointing into the water.

Poels half-expected to see a pig floating by, something that had recently happened.

Instead, he saw her.

The woman was barely keeping her head up.

* * *

Poels was uniquely prepared to help.

He is a former U.S. Army captain who went to Army Airborne and Army Ranger Schools and learned, among other things, how to jump from high places. He has parachuted out of airplanes. He has leaped out of helicopters hovering above the water.

The past eight years of sailing had made him especially attuned. Poels guessed he has performed some 15 water rescues.

Being on the water, he said, “you just learn to react and take things in sequence to keep everyone safe.”

* * *

At the Bund, Poels moved closer to the edge of the seawall.

He looked left and guessed the woman was about 6 feet upriver. He looked right and saw what, without his glasses, looked like cables some 100 feet downriver. He knew he would need something to tie onto, or else he could be swept downriver by the current and into barge traffic and the sea.

In his pidgin Mandarin and using hand gestures, Poels told a security guard he could swim.

“OK?” he asked. The Chinese are big on permission.


Poels sank into river-bottom muck halfway up his shins and popped up in time to see the woman's head sink under the water.

He swam quickly to the spot and dived to find her.

She hadn't sunk far, and Poels pushed her up. He said in his best Chinese: “I help you.”

She grabbed him but said nothing and then went unconscious.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

As they drifted downriver, he saw that the “cables” were actually a rope and a ladder, with a couple of maintenance workers stationed along the flood wall.

The workers helped Edward brace the woman against the rope. Edward tied her to it, using a bowline knot.

“Up!” he hollered.

Then he climbed to safety.

Back on the Bund, Edward saw that the woman had been laid on the sidewalk.

No one was administering first aid. Everyone was rubbernecking or getting the scene on video.

Poels rushed over, pushed on the woman's diaphragm, and she coughed up water.

The woman started breathing on her own but kept her eyes shut. Poels quietly talked to her, using every Chinese word he could think of, prattling on about his family, asking about hers and trying to provide some comfort. He saw one tear escape her closed eye.

He checked his watch.

He had jumped in at 3:08 p.m. It was now 3:38 p.m.

Where was the ambulance?

Poels asked a police officer if the “hospital is coming.” The officer said yes.

Poels asked if he could leave. Samantha's bus was due and he needed to get there. The officer said no.

Eventually, an ambulance arrived — an hour after the woman had fallen in — and she was treated at a hospital and released.

The rescue was widely reported, even making the TV news in Beijing, more than 600 miles away.

Poels was glad he could help.

But the experience was jarring, a reminder of how sluggish emergency response can be in China.

Shanghai is a first-tier, modern city, yet Poels says it appeared that day that no one else was willing or able to respond.

* * *

Certainly, you can be anywhere in this world and see a crowd watch a spectacle and do nothing.

You can be anywhere, too, and see an act of heroism.

After the rescue, Poels heard praise from shop owners who knew him. Some strangers saw him on the street and did a double-take. One said in English, “Good job!”

At home, his wife asked their daughter if she knew her dad was a hero. Samantha saw Poels returning from taking out the trash and chirped: “Daddy's the garbage man!”

Poels said he hopes to make his life count for something.

We all want that.

But how many of us, on a seemingly ordinary afternoon, would step into the air and then the water for a stranger?

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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