Fresh from surgery for an injury related to rescuing his neighbor from drowning in the Rogue River, John Haight talks about receiving a Carnegie award. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Bob Pennell

'I just knew it had to be done'

ROGUE RIVER — A local resident who jumped into the Rogue River's frigid waters to save his neighbor's life last summer will receive a Carnegie Medal for risking his life.

John Haight, 56, and 18 others nationwide will receive the Carnegie Medal and a cash award of $5,000 from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, a nonprofit based in Pittsburgh.

"I am quite honored," Haight said Thursday. "I'm not one of those guys that goes seeking the spotlight or anything like that."

Haight is the only Oregonian to receive the distinction for this round of honors, which are awarded quarterly. The foundation gives out 80 to 100 Carnegie Medals a year to U.S. and Canadian citizens who put their life on the line to rescue another.

Haight was in the right place at the right time when his neighbor, 72-year-old Leonard Wrobel, fell into the river on June 29, 2011. Wrobel had been working on an irrigation pump near the river in the 8600 block of Rogue River Highway just after 8 p.m. when he slipped. Wrobel got sucked under the 59-degree water but tried to swim for the surface. He remembers looking up and seeing the blurry outlines of swimming fish and dim light refracting on the water.

"All of a sudden I was to the top and it started to take me back down again," Wrobel said.

He passed out and floated down the river, not moving. His wife started to scream.

Haight and his nephew had been taking a break from mowing the grass when he heard the screams.

Haight ran to the river's edge near his property to investigate. Wrobel floated by. Haight told his nephew to call 911 and then jumped into the water.

"I just knew it had to be done," Haight said.

He caught up with Wrobel after about 200 feet and pulled him to a nearby concrete slab on a riverbank. Wrobel's color was all wrong, a mix of black and blue. Haight performed CPR. Wrobel started to breathe again. His color started to return.

"He kept saying, 'I'm not going to lose you, I'm not going to lose you,'" Wrobel recalled.

Wrobel was transported to Three Rivers Community Hospital, where he spent about a month recovering. He'd previously had two strokes and a pacemaker inserted, he said. He's currently doing well, he said.

During the rescue, Haight strained several muscles in his right arm, which required physical therapy and steroid injections. He also hyper-extended his big toe, for which he had surgery just recently.

But reading the testimonies of the other Carnegie Medal recipients has helped put his pain in perspective, he said, as some of them died during their rescue attempts.

"I'm getting through it," Haight said.

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie created the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission in 1904, largely in response to a horrific mining explosion outside Pittsburgh that left 181 dead. Among those lost were an engineer and miner who ventured into the mine to try and lead those trapped to safety.

The commission created a $5 million fund to recognize people who put their lives on the line while saving another.

"I do not expect to stimulate or create heroism by this fund, knowing well that heroic action is impulsive," Carnegie wrote in the deed of trust about the fund. "But I do believe that, if the hero is injured in his bold attempt to serve or save his fellows, he and those dependent upon him should not suffer (financially)."

"Up until that time in history, nobody had recognized civilian heroism. It was always military heroism, if you will," said Douglas Chambers, director of external affairs for the commission.

The commission monitors daily clippings of most U.S. and Canadian newspapers and news websites for stories about heroic deeds. Individuals can also be nominated.

"The primary bar, if you will, is life risk, extraordinary life risk," Chambers said.

There is no ceremony, but honorees will receive their medals in about two months, as each one has to be individually made.

If the honored person dies, the financial benefits are given to next of kin or as scholarship assistance to those who survive. Haight said he will use his $5,000 to fund swimming lessons for children.

"That's my intention," Haight said, adding he grew up around the water and that he believes swimming is an important skill.

Wrobel said he is glad Haight was there to pull him to safety that day and can barely put his gratitude into words.

"There's no word to describe (it), but thanks," Wrobel said.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at

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