Let me begin with this simple disclaimer: It has been over 21 years since this story began. I have NEVER written about it or sought out any of the publicity that resulted. Here is my one and only written version of some of the craziness that has transpired...
Ron & Rodeo (Photo courtesy Tom & Sally Meyers)
It all started on a rainy night, January 2, 1997. After days of heavy rain and wind, the levee broke behind the home of a 4-year-old Border Collie named "Rodeo". He needed to seek higher ground...and did...somehow escape over 30 feet of rising water!
Over 30 feet of water... January 3, 1997 (These 2 photos courtesy CA Dept. of Water Resources)
The Thompson's home with Rodeo on top
The morning of January 3, 1997 was like no other. Being a news photographer flying in a million dollar helicopter was an exciting job. It is obviously very tragic for victims of natural disasters, but I (in some small way) got to aide emergency officials and the general public in seeing the various levels of devastation from a new perspective. There had been massive flooding for days in Northern California. Our task this specific morning was to show the first daylight pictures in the Arboga area... near Marysville and Yuba City. KCRA was on the air non-stop for over 80 hours of TV coverage...commercial free. I am honored to have played a small role in what I believe were the finest 80+ hours in KCRA broadcasting history. The station provided a real public service. (Key point...these were the "Kelly Broadcasting" Years vs. the "Hearst Years").
Around 9:30 a.m. , while circling the actual levee break, the anchor on TV stated "Isn't that a dog down there?" Indeed we had zoomed in on a 3 story home, with over 30 feet of water almost up the highest eves. Perched on top was a Border Collie, we now know as Rodeo. Eventually, the home owners, Jim & Jan Thompson phoned the station and were on TV live telling their story. Now the world knew the dog and he had a name. It personalized the story.
As seen on TV --- January 3, 1997 about 9:30 a.m.
There was so much devastation, doom and gloom all over the north part of our state... this was an animal (obviously, aside from the hopes and prayers for human safety) that people wanted to root for. At the time, there was no way for a rescue...boat or otherwise. The water was too swift and the pitch of the roof made an aerial rescue impossible. We flew off to southern portions of our viewing area and came back north, then back south all day. Our pilot, Michael Kidd, the true unsung hero in this adventure, felt we could get in 1 more live report near the dog as the sun set across the valley about 5:30pm.
Rodeo had moved higher up the roof to escape the water that was closing in on him. Michael felt we might have a chance to scoop him up. A little known fact about me is that at that time, I was on light duty. (I seemed to have had a couple of those moments in this job!?!?!)... Anyway, I was involved a few months earlier in a work related spill in an abandoned missile silo in Chico doing a story. I had injured my lower back, right shoulder and left knee.
Michael & I felt there would be no dog to rescue if an attempt was not made now. He said he could get the ship low enough if I felt I could grab him. So, I took off the headset, unbuckled the seatbelt, opened the door to deafening sounds of rotor noise. Rodeo had curled up around an air duct at the pinnacle of the roof. This was serious business folks... we were NOT on TV with this. It was the LAST thing on our minds.... it took about 3 minutes of me yelling for the dog and directing Michael where to hover closest to the dog. We never "landed" on the roof. The rear rotor was VERY close to the chimney but Michael kept it in a steady hover with slight variations to assist me. FINALLY, almost imperceptibly, Rodeo turned his neck j-u-s-t enough....
All I remember is a fist full of fur, skin and a collar...throwing him across my body into the ship and yelling to Mike "take off!" Not wanting the excess weight to create a real problem, I waited until Michael had drifted out over the open water to climb back inside. Michael radioed the station then to "take us live" and they did... without knowing what was going on. I had hooked up a small "lipstick" style camera into a position where I could show the dog safely aboard, licking my face. The whole world watched this unfold via CNN and NBC (and other media outlets) for over 8 hours. It took me years to understand it... but people needed a bright spot in all the calamity. This was it. On TV, the anchors and pilot joked that "If you like what Ron did, he likes cheese burgers".
Not only did the community need an uplifting story... so did I.
This "Rodeo" thing happened January 3, 1997. The whole calendar year 1996 really sucked for me personally. I had the work injury, the death of a beloved grandparent and some other very personal things... but I needed a personal, emotional boost in the worst way. This rescue was it.
Ron, Rodeo and Michael Kidd upon landing.
Jim & Jan Thompson with Rodeo
Upon landing, people were at the airport with dog leashes, water bowls, dog food, cameras... and yes, burgers! At the time, Dann Shively worked in another newsroom for a short time...but HE was at the airport when we landed too! (People still think Dann piloted that rescue mission, but this was Michael Kidd's flight.) Michael and I then went downtown to the station and reunited Rodeo with his owners. It was very emotional. The Thompson's had lost EVERYTHING. Two of their neighbors had died in the flood... it was that serious. Rodeo gave them (and others) hope.
Upon leaving for the night...we were satisfied in making at least one family a tad happier. Of course the newsroom was getting hundreds of calls. We got a few telegrams (I am amazed people still send those!) and I was told I got 2 marriage proposals. Not sure about that... not very romantic huh? Anyway, we felt the story had run its course... the best part being reuniting Rodeo with the Thompson's. We had NO IDEA how this was just the beginning!
One more tid bit I think I'll throw in... because I get asked about it a lot... there were rumors, that persist even today that we (Michael & I) got in trouble with the station or the Federal Aviation Administration or other people or agencies. ALL FALSE. I was never questioned, admonished, nothing over the incident. Happy story, happy ending. No wrist slapping!
Okay, let me tell you a little story about the aftermath of this adventure...
I currently have 5 binders at home FULL of letters, telegrams, drawings... you name it. They came from all over the world. It is now over 21 years later... I STILL get mail and inquires. It could be from people reading the article from Readers Digest that was written in 1997... and is probably still sitting in a doctor's waiting room near you! Heck, I don't know why... but I still get asked about it at least once a week.
Hero Day at a Local School
The photos at left are of a couple great kids that had a theme event to dress up like "heroes" at their school. They chose to portray Michael and myself. Notice the "cameraman" (in bottom photo) even has a cheeseburger in his hand! I was deeply touched by this and the other heartfelt notes and drawings sent by school children. I have kept EVERYTHING!
One strange thing happened in my travels... at another school event I went and spoke at. It was again a "Heroes Day". I was not sure what to expect. Imagine my shock when I was in front of the school assembly with Firefighters, Policemen, Soldiers from almost every war America has fought... and a Pearl Harbor and a Holocaust survivor! Now, I have NEVER used the word "hero" about myself in any venue nor will I. To Rodeo, maybe I was...but these fine men and women are among the REAL heroes we should always honor. The men and women filling sandbags during storms... driving food trucks to feed workers... there are thousands of unsung heroes. To be named among this elite group makes me VERY uneasy. I think we as a society toss the word "hero" around too loosely and it diminishes the title for people who deserve it far more than I ever did or will....
Note the cameraman even has the cheeseburger in hand!
We also got 2 big feature articles in PEOPLE MAGAZINE. Here are the links to click on:
At my junior high school alma mater, Arden Intermediate, at their annual Renaissance Fair, I was "knighted". I shall be known among friends now as "Sir Ron". I have the video to prove it... but I will NOT make it a "YouTube" moment! It's just one of the lighthearted moments I experienced. Another anecdote was that Rodeo, Jan Thompson and I were the Grand Marshal's of the annual Elk Grove Community Parade! There are so many "behind the scenes" moments about all of this, that it is too much to include here...
Sacramento Bee Article EXCERPT
The Oprah Winfrey Show ---March 1997
We got media offers from all over the country. "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" called a couple times. He ended up on vacation, so the news value of our story diminished... but I turned down "Maury Povitch"... mainly because I did not want to be lured to New York City and be shocked with some rotten paternity test!
Yes, we got a lot of "ink" and TV and Radio attention, but when "Oprah" calls... you take that call! It was a great 24 hour trip in and out of Chicago. My only request to them was I wanted to bring my wife Lisa. They said I could... IF I flew coach. Let's see.... me first class, non stop?... Or fly coach with a Dallas layover and having Lisa with me? This would be a once in a lifetime chance for both of us....Hmmmmm... Well, we've been married almost 18 years now, so I guess I did the right thing!
The Oprah episode we were on did NOT air in Sacramento. At that time, KXTV Channel 10 carried the show. They did not want to promote KCRA people on their station. Dumb, dumb, dumb! They took a lot of heat from the public and in the Sacramento Bee newspaper over that decision. At least I have copies of the show to share!
Ron, Lisa & Oprah !
Ron, Rodeo & the Thompson's on National TV
Of course... maybe it had something to do with my appearance on TV a couple weeks earlier... also on their station. The Thompson's, Rodeo and I were on "The Caryl & Marilyn Show". They are a comedy duo known as "Real Mommies". It was an ABC daytime show that eventually got cancelled so "The View" could replace it. The General Manager and one of the owners of KCRA at the time granted me permission to fly down and be on the show...On company time and "on the clock"... IF... I wore a KCRA shirt. I did and nobody ever said a word. Except when I popped up on Channel 10's air... in a rating period, wearing a polo shirt with the KCRA logo on it. I suppose KXTV feared I was gonna do that on Oprah... but no way... I even bought a new suit for Oprah! I doubt 99.9% of the public even noticed... but KXTV did. Sorry! The boss made me do it!
Ron being honored by Former Governor Pete Wilson & the California Legislature
Awards? Boy we got quite a few! The photo at left was me being honored at the State Capitol, here by then Governor Pete Wilson. I was given an award on behalf of the Governor and the California Legislature for being a "Flood Hero". There were only 10 of us honored. You had to be nominated, and I do not know the criteria... but again I will say... there were THOUSANDS of heroes... you pass them on the streets everyday. How can I be one of ten to be so honored? Well, I was deeply, deeply touched and honored. All of my family was there on the capitol steps to see this... it was a bit overwhelming. But I will always pass the compliments off for OUR story to Michael Kidd. One hell of a pilot. If I did not trust him completely, this would never have happened.
"People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" sent us shirts, coffee mugs and certificates for our heroism. Well, thisavid hunter and fisherman looks back fondly at the accolades and hundreds of letters I got from P.E.T.A. and their supporters. Those alone almost fill up 1 of my 5 binders!
The bottom line??? To the REAL honest to God heroes, no matter what you do to help others in need... no matter how insignificant you feel your assistance is or was...you have my undying gratitude and admiration.
Children's Book "The Rescue of Loredo"
A children's book was written by a local author from the Folsom area... Jim Follis. Proceeds went to an animal rescue charity. It was available in both paperback and a hard cover edition. Jim did not want to use real names in the book for possible legal reasons... but wow... what a thrill to see it in print like this!
I had other potential authors contact me... but I declined to participate in any profit making motives they had for themselves. I have no idea what became of those manuscripts. I have a few "proposed drafts waiting for my approval", but they sought profit...I sought "redemption for the families that lost everything".
A few commemorative T-Shirts were made and sold for charity purposes too...
Commemorative T-Shirt made for Charity
Another T-Shirt design
In conclusion, I would just like to thank everyone who donated to a charity because of this story. Michael and I did many fund raisers for many charitable groups and a lot of money was raised. I even got a letter from an Arizona animal shelter that had a cage for adoptable animals named for us as a result of the "People Magazine" article. I am still shocked at the level of interest this story drew.
So much more good has happened in our country and I wish more people could experience some of the "highs" we got. We simply did it out of compassion for the animal. One would hope anyone else would have done the same thing if they had the right tools.
One national animal rights advocate was quoted in the newspaper as saying we (Michael & I) " did it for publicity". Complete crap! She even had the audacity to say this after showcasing us at her own fund raisers! I won't name any names or groups here... but anything she's affiliated with now gets ZERO from me. As a side note...she has been "black listed from the charter group" for other improprieties.
The biggest lesson we think this story accomplished?
Don't forget about saving the lives of pets and other animals!
Obviously, human life is paramount, but we must not forget our non-human friends too when disaster strikes.
Thank you all for your support and communications over the years. It has meant a lot.