‘We just really want people to be safe’: Leavenworth teen rescuers call for river responsibility

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LEAVENWORTH — When longtime friends and expert swimmers Bijou Zehm, 17, and Anna Martinez, 16, pulled a struggling man from the Wenatchee River July 17, the worst part is it wasn’t the first time.

Specifically, it was Anna’s fifth time coming to someone’s aid on the river where both girls have grown up, swimming and paddleboarding all their lives.

“When you spend a lot of time at the river, then you run into this situation quite a bit,” Anna said.

Both Anna and Bijou swam competitively with the Leavenworth Swim Team, from kindergarten age till their high school years. When they spotted four empty innertubes drifting into a choppy section of the Wenatchee, and then saw their occupant struggling in the water, they leapt to his aid.

The man was much bigger than the two girls, and wore no lifejacket. “And also, he was just really intoxicated,” Bijou said. “So that was a bit of the struggle — just trying to like get him to understand.”

“Because I don’t think he was really aware of what was going on, which was kind of concerning,” Anna said.

Their rescue earned the two girls praise from their local fire district, who’d been alerted to the drifting man after he missed his pullout point near Barn Beach. He fell off his tubes and floated alone toward the Highway 2 bridge across the Wenatchee, where the river churn increases greatly. That was where Anna and Bijou intervened.

They were proud to have saved a life, they said, but recreationists in distress — often intoxicated, often without personal flotation devices — are too common on the river.

“People die every single year, and it’s just so heartbreaking,” Bijou said. “And we were faced with it head-on. … We just really want people to be safe.”

“I feel like, as two 16-, 17-year-olds, we shouldn’t have been put in that situation.” Anna said. “… I feel like that shouldn’t be a common occurrence in this river, or any river, really. Something needs to change. There needs to be more regulations.”