Quick-thinking zanjero

Daily inspection turns into successful rescue situation

A Valley man could have lost his life if not for the quick actions of a zanjero going about his daily patrol.

Around 6 a.m. June 3, Zanjero John Calhoun was doing his usual inspection of the canal system when he stopped to check a header ditch at 12th Street and Turney Avenue in Phoenix.

“There’s no water running in it, but I check it every day anyway because you never know what you’re going to find blocking the grate,” Calhoun said.

On this day, he spotted a man in the adjacent Grand Canal. At first Calhoun thought he was a homeless bather — common for zanjeros, who play a vital role in the control and flow of water in the Valley, to find — but something just wasn’t right.

Employee John Calhoun recently helped rescue a resident from Grand Canal.

“He looked a little perplexed, but he said he was OK,” Calhoun added. “I told him it wasn’t a good idea to be there. If you make it to the radial gate, you’re going to be in serious trouble.”

Radial gates open and close to raise and lower the canal level for customer water deliveries. When the gates open, anything near them gets sucked in because of the vacuum created by water pressure around the opening. People drown this way, trapped underwater.

The man said he needed help getting out of the canal because his knees were hurting him. Calhoun grabbed his goncho — a long rake-like tool used to clean intake grates — and extended the handle for him to grab on to. The man didn’t reach for it, though, so Calhoun told him to grab the ladder attached to the canal wall. Again, no response.

“He just floated on past,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun called the Association Dispatch Center for assistance, and Transmission Communications Watermaster Lynda Garcia Perez picked up. While she was contacting the Phoenix Fire Department, the situation quickly escalated.

“He went fully underwater,” Calhoun said. “At that point I went, ‘Oh no.’”

Calhoun could still see the man’s white T-shirt below the surface as he floated under the 12th Street bridge heading west down the Grand Canal. Calhoun followed the man along the canal bank, and about 30 seconds later he popped up. About that time, the Phoenix Fire Department arrived.

Firefighters struggled to get the man to cooperate, but they were finally able to grab him with a hook. As the man was being pulled out of the canal, Calhoun saw that he had metal prosthetic legs and was wearing a medical bracelet. Phoenix Fire later told local news outlets that the man did not know how or when he fell into the canal.

Calhoun’s quick thinking likely saved the man’s life, but he doesn’t consider his actions heroic.

“I don’t think I did anything anyone else wouldn’t do,” he added. “It’s just human nature to try to help another person.”

Calhoun thanked Zanjero Keith Woodhull for backing him up during the situation so that customers weren’t affected and gave special thanks to Garcia Perez.

“By communicating that we needed someone out there fast, she played a big role in the situation turning out the way it did,” Calhoun said.

Supervisor Luke DeLeo said Calhoun’s actions are a great representation of SRP’s values in caring for the community.

“Even though zanjeros deal with an array of different issues daily in the field, John had the presence of mind to be aware of his surroundings,” said DeLeo, Watermaster, Northside Water Operations. “He realized that this gentleman was unknowingly in a bad situation and followed correct procedure when the man could not help himself. John is passionate about his job as a zanjero and is compassionate when it comes to helping others.”

Photos: Laura Segall

Heather Albert

Heather Albert

Heather is an Arizona native who works in Corporate Communications, overseeing SRP’s weekly employee publication. Outside of work, she likes to play sand volleyball, take her dog hiking, travel, read and bake pies.

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