Sensing danger in the waters of Cave Run Lake, firefighter Lee Hayden jumped in without a life jacket to save a man in trouble.
It wasn’t a stranger who was in trouble two years go. It was a friend of the Lexington fire battalion chief’s.
Hayden earned the Firefighter’s Cross award Saturday for his rescue of Damon Horton. The award is the second-highest award a Lexington firefighter can receive for bravery and he’s just the fourth person to receive it.
Why did the honor take two years? Hayden was quiet about his heroic act and he diminished how big of a deal it was, according to Battalion Chief Joe Best.
“We didn’t know the full extent until the person he saved wrote to us,” Best said. “Only then did we realize the magnitude of what he had done.”
The 23-year fire department veteran said he was boating with friends and family on the lake near Morehead when his friend decided to try tubing.
While on the tube, Horton fell off and his life jacket came off. His trunks slid down toward his ankles, so he couldn’t properly kick, according to Hayden.
Hayden saw his friend struggle and go under water a couple of times, so jumped in. The battalion chief used the rope of the tube and the tube itself as a life preserver.
Hayden normally would put on a life jacket before jumping into the water, but there was no time with his jacket at the front of the boat.
“You see somebody in trouble and you just help out; that’s the characteristics sometimes of a firefighter, good or bad,” Hayden said. “We jump in without thinking of the safety precautions, even though we are trained to put safety first. Sometimes when you see another human struggling or going through something, you instinctively just jump in and want to help and try to save that person.”
Horton spent the night in the hospital, but Hayden said he recovered. Hayden was diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia after inadvertently swallowing lake water.
The two friends still joke about it, “but at the time, it was nothing to laugh about,” Hayden said.
“He still says, ‘hey, when are we going to the lake?’ It’s good to be able to look back, and we were blessed that God was there to watch over both of us,” Hayden said. “With family and friends on board, it could have turned out a lot different. Not only a loss of life, but it could have been detrimental to those who were on board to watch and see it.”
Hayden said he would have jumped in to help no matter who was in the water.
Receiving the award at Saturday’s Fire Department Awards Banquet was “kind of a shocker,” Hayden said, but it meant a lot.
“Our job is kind of a selfless job because we don’t look for the accolades,” he said. “We do what we have to do, save lives or whatever, come back to the station and don’t give another thought. We prepare for the next run. So to get noticed for something that we all do…it wasn’t just an award for me or recognition for me, it was for firefighters all over.”