River rescue got new cop’s feet wet

By Bethany Knipp

WAMEGO — Two days after graduating from the police academy, Wamego Police Department Officer Derek Gray found himself in the Kansas River, rescuing a 9-year-old girl. The rescue occurred Aug. 4 following a weekend of heavy rains and flooding.

The girl, Kayla Hardie of Wamego, had been sitting on a bank and dangling her feet in the water a short distance from the city when she fell in .

Hardie was swept up by the river’s current. Her 17-year-old sister, Aerial, jumped in to rescue her, but also struggled against the current. Aerial Hardie managed to get out and get help from people in a nearby house.

Gray, 29, had just showed up for work that day when the call came in that a child was stranded in the river.

He went in the river — with other emergency personnel standing at the bank — and swam about 25 feet to Kayla Hardie, eventually getting her to shore with the help of a flotation device.

Gray received copious media attention for his efforts, but he said he was just doing his job, helping his community, something he set out to do since he was still in the military.

Originally from California, Gray was stationed at Fort Riley in 2006 .  He worked as a transportation coordinator to move units from the U.S. to other countries. Gray now lives in St. George with his wife and 5-year-old son.

Gray was deployed multiple times to Iraq after enlisting following the 9-11 terrorist attacks. But eventually he decided to focus his efforts here, which led him to depart military service for law enforcement.

“When I got deployed to Iraq, I didn’t feel like I was serving my country, I felt like I was serving Iraq,” he said. “I felt like I could probably better serve my country [in law enforcement], because I would actually be serving Americans ... In the grand scheme of things, I like to think it’s making the country better,” he said.

Experience as a volunteer police officer during his transition out of the Army gave Gray experience working with the Wamego Police Department when he rescued Kayla Hardie. Yet he only graduated from the police academy the Friday before.

Gray said helping people is what he’s here to do. He said he does his best to be an empathetic cop because he sees people at their worst. He said he thinks some people don’t like police officers because their job is to hold people accountable for their actions.

“We’re not just out to get people in trouble,” he said.

Gray said he hasn’t had any police action as dramatic as the river rescue since then.  His other police experience has involved a car chase and catching a person running away from a scene. Gray said it’s always his ambition to prevent crime and help people.

  “When bad things happen, I want to be the guy that goes there,” he said.

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