Sweetwater’s smalltown hero
According to the Sweetwater County (Wyoming) Sheriff’s Department, flames and smoke from a burning rural Jamestown home caught Ryan Pasborg’s eye as he was driving on nearby Highway 374. A volunteer fireman, Pasborg drove to the home where he found three children, ages 12, 8, and 6, outside. They indicated their mother and a younger brother, 4, were inside and needed help. Pasborg placed the three older children in his vehicle to escape the cold and he entered the burning home, crawling on the floor through the smoke.
He located the young boy and carried him outside to the warm pickup and returned again to the burning home. He crawled further into the home and found the mother, badly burned and struggling to breathe. He dragged her from the home and, when he saw she wasn’t breathing, performed lifesaving measures. He then drove to the highway to await emergency responders. The mother and youngest child were air-lifted to nearby hospitals where they both have undergone multiple surgeries.
According to a sheriff’s department spokesperson, Pasborg later personally purchased clothing and necessities for the children and delivered them to them at the home of their grandmother.
“Not only is it a blessing in its own right that Mr. Pasborg was in the right place at the right time, but his willingness without second thought to risk his own life to help save this family was the difference between life and death for this young mother and her child; he gave them a fighting chance,” Sheriff John Grossnickle said.
Deputy Jason Mower, the public affairs officer for the Sheriff’s Office said even though Pasborg is a trained firefighter, no training can prepare someone to act as Pasborg did when faced with a situation like this one.
The story caught the attention of Florida-based writer Sean Dietrich. Known also as Sean of the South, Dietrich writes mostly about his native southeast in short essays about the normal people who make places what they are. His distinct voice and dry sense of humor are among his trademarks.
He is the author of 13 books, hosts a podcast and radio show, and posts essays daily to his blog and social media page. Dietrich penned and posted an essay titled Sweetwater about the rescue.
His father, who he wrote about in his memoir Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, spent time in Colorado as an itinerant steel worker and asked that his ashes be scattered from Pikes Peak. Dietrich said he holds a fondness for Colorado and the time he has spent in the state. Wyoming, however, has been the subject of several of his blog posts and he said each time, his email and mailbox overflow with readers from the Cowboy State who are proud and appreciative to have their state recognized. That was the case, he said, when he posted Sweetwater.
Dietrich said a reader alerted him to the story and he was moved by it, a surefire litmus test of whether it might also move his readers, he said. The piece caught the attention of The Fence Post magazine and garnered a warm response on social media. The essay also caught the attention of the hero at its center, Ryan Pasborg, and the father of the children who were the recipients of Pasborg’s heroic efforts. Both, Dietrich said, reached out to him to thank him after the post was published.
Writing about Wyoming is a departure from his typical subjects, and he said he is certainly drawn to the state as it holds a certain romance for him.
“It really does feel like Wyoming must be a special place,” Dietrich said.
Sweetwater by Sean Dietrich
Welcome to Sweetwater County, Wyoming. You’re looking at 10,500 square miles of deer and antelope playing. Where seldom is heard any cell phone reception. This is God’s country.
Sweetwater lies nestled between Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, clinging to the underbelly of the Cowboy State like a bloated tick. This is some of the most magnificent terrain in the Union.
This isn’t a county you hear talked about often, and with good reason. There’s nothing here. The county itself is larger than nine U.S. states, but the population is barely big enough to form a Methodist choir.
Wild horses thrive in Sweetwater. About 1,500 of them roam across the high desert, cantering among the greasewood, the pepperweed, and the pink hopsage. This is an extremely remote region. In a dire emergency, you’d be hard pressed to find a TJ Maxx.
A few days ago, Ryan was late for work, driving among the miles of sagebrush along Highway 374 when he saw something that caught his eye.
There in the distance, nestled beneath the shadow of a large rock butte, was an olive-drab house. It was a modest home, with children’s toys littering the lawn — that is, if you can call a bunch of dirt a “lawn.”
Ryan saw flames shooting from the windows.
His truck skidded to a stop. He glanced around but saw no emergency lightbars, and heard no sirens.
This is Wyoming. Emergency response time in the Forty-Fourth State is not speedy. In most U.S. states, the average emergency response time is 15 minutes, which is about the time it takes to defrost a frozen burrito. Wyoming’s statewide response time, however, is upwards of 35 minutes.
Ryan did not waste time. He hit the brakes, then leapt out of his truck, and approached the three kids standing in the driveway. They were small children, all under age 12. All scared spitless. Their faces were red from the sub-zero windchills, their eyes bloodshot with panic.
He asked the kids whether anyone was inside the home. The kids, immobilized by fright, nodded their heads. They said something to the tune of: “Our mama and brother are inside.”
Ryan glanced at the house. Pillars of fire were erupting from the kitchen.
The first thing you should know about Ryan Pasborg is that he used to be a firefighter over in Superior (pop. 211). This was not his first saddle bronc ride, he had been trained for this sort of thing.
Still, there is one quality that no amount of technical training at the fire academy can provide, and that is uncommon courage. You either have it or your don’t.
Currently, there are 1,216,200 working firefighters in the U.S., and 745,000 of those men and women are volunteers who work crummy hours. Volunteers do this for free, mind you. Together they protect 68 percent of the U.S. population.
Simply put, if you’ve ever wanted to see uncommon courage, visit your local fire brigade.
Ryan sprinted into the flaming house.
“He didn’t have time to think,” Deputy Jason Mower later told KSTU 13. “He knew what he thought was the right thing to do and he acted.”
Ryan crashed inside, dropped to all fours, and crawled through a world of brown smoke and ash. Visibility was nil. Breathing was impossible. Ryan was working blind, and his lungs were immediately burning.
He commando-crawled into the kitchen, shouting, but getting no response.
He bumped into limp the body of a 4-year-old. He carried the child outside, and placed the boy into his truck with the other siblings. Then, because Ryan hadn’t had enough fun yet, he plunged into the inferno again, looking for Mama.
He found her. She was in rough shape. The young woman was severely burned, struggling for air.
Ryan dragged the woman outside into the biting Wyoming frost. She had already quit breathing, so he began chest compressions.
Meantime, the woman’s children were watching Ryan from behind his windshield, their eyes widened with horror, their cheeks slick with tears. Who was this guy? Who was this perfect stranger, breaking their mother’s ribs with his bare hands, performing mouth-to-mouth?
The woman finally breathed. It was almost miraculous the way her abdomen instantly tightened and her ribcage expanded. She pulled in a sudden gasp of air and her eyes opened.
When the calvary arrived, Sweetwater’s first responders found a 32-year-old man, painted in black soot, hacking and coughing, carrying a badly burned woman in his arms.
Ryan Pasborg. A passerby. Just some guy on his way to work one morning.
Lightbars flickered to life and filled the air with red and blue. Sirens whined. Tires screeched. Mother and child were both flown to the University of Utah to be treated for burns. They are not out of the woods yet, but they are alive.
“People like Ryan,” said Deputy Mower, “are a testament to the overwhelming power and strength of a community that we are so fortunate to share with one another as friends and neighbors here in Sweetwater County.”
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They were told to evacuate, but the Atencio family couldn’t let the fire take their ranch headquarters.