PHOTOS BY CHRISTINA McCUNE / DGKN
Landon Hodge, 7, stands with East Wayne Fire District Assistant Chief Ryan Sprunger.
Joshua and Trisha Hodge take a moment to themselves after the first Jenson Rescue Rope is installed at the pond where two of their sons, Landon and Jenson, had fallen through thin ice in December.
EWFD Assistant Chief Ryan Sprunger, Lt. Seth Greegor and firefighter/paramedic Ryan Sullivan install a Jenson Rescue Rope at the pond along Eckard Road in Sugar Creek Township.
EWFD Lt. Seth Greegor shows the the rescue throw rope named in honor of Jenson Hodge. The project aims to install the life-saving devices at bodies of water throughout the area.
East Wayne Fire District members are shown with Todd Farriss, Landon Hodge, 7, Trisha and Joshua Hodge and Carson Hodge, 6, Sept. 23 after the Jenson Rescue Rope is installed at the pond.
SUGAR CREEK TWP. Nine months ago, a local firefighter jumped into an icy pond on a family farm to rescue two young boys and their grandfather, but one boy did not survive. Now, a project to prevent similar tragedies is growing and providing some peace to the family.
Eyes still well up with tears when family members talk about Jenson Hodge, the energetic 4-year-old who died on Christmas Eve.
Jenson and his brother, Landon, who is now 7, had been playing on the farm on a sunny winter day when they fell through thin ice. Family members jumped to action. Cousin Jae Weaver saw the accident and called 911 as their grandfather, Todd Farriss, tried to reach them. The icy water proved to be too much, and when rescuers responded, they worked to pull all three from the pond. Landon and his grandfather recovered, but Jenson died later at the hospital.
At least 20 relatives and several members of East Wayne Fire District gathered last week to install a rescue throw rope at the pond. The kit was the first of about 100 that will be installed by bodies of water throughout the area.
Jenson Hodge’s parents, Joshua and Trisha, said they are grateful to the first responders who rushed to the scene that day, and for the continued support of the community. Joshua said he feels the rescue rope project, started by EWFD Assistant Chief Ryan Sprunger, is a positive that came out of the tragedy.
“I lean on it Scripturally,” Joshua Hodge said. “God says that He works out things for the good of those who love Him. This is one of those things that He’s working good through even though we suffer through it. It’s going to be something that hopefully will save others’ lives.”
The yellow ropes are 75 feet long and come in bright orange bags. A kit includes the rope and bag and storage container, which is a clearly labeled canister on a metal stake. The ropes are named in honor of the preschooler: “Jenson Rescue Rope.” The webpage at eastwayne.org has videos and instructions about how to effectively deploy the ropes.
“We’re grateful that they chose to do it in Jenson’s name,” Trisha Hodge said. “That’s so special to us. We’re already so grateful for the first responders and EMTs who came to rescue them and then to go a step above means a lot to us.”
Besides Landon, the Hodges have two other young children: Carson, 6, and Havyn, 10 months. Many close extended family members also live in the area.
“It means something to us … It just makes it a little easier for us to know that it helps save other parents from burying their kids because no parent should have to do that,” Trisha said. “It’s an awful thing to live with if you come out of it like Landon did.”
Jae Weaver began a GoFundMe account to help the Hodges during the hospital stay, and then to help with funeral expenses. Wee Care, Jenson’s preschool in Wooster, also has a GoFundMe account, with money raised going to the Hodges, as well as a memorial bench in Jenson’s name on the playground where he loved playing outdoors with his friends, the account states.
A small memorial with a cross, flowers and Jenson’s name spelled out in stones is in the sand on the bank of the pond.
On Sept. 23, when the first Jenson Rescue Rope was dedicated at the Eckard Road pond, Weaver’s sorority sisters at the Epsilon Nu chapter of Alpha Delta Pi at Ashland University sent photos of themselves wearing green, Jenson’s favorite color, to show their support. They also bought her family a bouquet of flowers and donated money to the GoFundMe.
Ryan Sprunger, who recently was promoted to assistant chief, will be receiving a state Valor Award for his quick actions Dec. 22. Fire Chief Kyle Nussbaum and Sugar Creek Township Trustee Jon Hofstetter nominated Sprunger for the 2020 Ohio Fire Service Hall of Fame Award. Sprunger and other award recipients are listed on the State Fire Marshal’s Office website.
“Although the community still mourns the tragedy of that day, Sprunger’s quick and heroic actions are directly responsible for giving two people a second chance at life. Firefighter Ryan Sprunger is a great credit to himself, the East Wayne Joint Fire District and the state of Ohio,” the State Fire Marshal’s website states.
Local officials also have been discussing how to honor Sprunger and the other first responders and departments who answered the call.
Following the December accident, Sprunger, 29, of Dalton, took his idea about installing rescue ropes at ponds to his fire chief, and he also asked the family about the ropes honoring Jenson’s memory.
He received encouragement all around, and his father, Jedd, who also is a firefighter/EMT with East Wayne, helped to design the container holding the rope so it is easily accessible.
“We made it super easy to operate,” he said.
Sprunger is a third-generation firefighter. His grandfather, John Sprunger, is a former chief at Kidron Volunteer Fire Department. Sprunger said he grew up wanting to be a firefighter and EMT simply “to help other people … helping someone else in need.”
Answering the call
On Dec. 22, Sprunger was driving home from church in his pickup truck. He was heading home to meet his wife, Colleen, to go to a friend’s wedding out of state.
When Sprunger heard the call reporting two people had fallen through ice, he was not far from the farm and drove straight there. Sprunger had a throw rope in his truck. Fire Chief Kyle Nussbaum also headed immediately to the farm in his private vehicle and had a child’s life vest on hand.
When Sprunger arrived, he saw Farriss, 56, had fallen through the ice as he was trying to hold on to 6-year-old Landon.
“By that time they had been in there for a while and they were getting cold and even weak to stay afloat,” Sprunger recalled. “We didn’t have any other options so I just went in then and got them out.”
Local first responders have had training for rescues in water and ice. Typically, the rescuer puts on a special suit before going out on the ice. In this case, time was of the essence. The water was freezing, but the only thought in Sprunger’s mind was to pull the victims to safety.
“I just had my church clothes on,” he said.
Sprunger immediately began rescue attempts, venturing into the water.
“When you’re learning to do ice rescue your motto is always throw before you go,” Sprunger said. “You’re always trying to get them out without going on the ice. I tried to hand them the rope as soon as I went down to get them. Landon was going under the water. That was when I jumped in and grabbed him and pulled him out. It was just instinct at that point.”
Once the two were on stable ground, rescuers learned a second boy was still underwater.
Crews arrived from three departments. East Wayne’s Donald Shilling and Brian Frank both responded with ice suits. Kidron Volunteer Fire Department brought two squads. Paint Township Mt. Eaton Fire Department also responded.
Responders pulled the 4-year-old from the pond and successfully performed CPR. All three were taken to area hospitals. Sprunger was checked on and transported home. Farriss and Landon recovered. Sadly, Jenson passed away at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Jenson Rescue Ropes
“I came up with the idea as a way to remember Jenson,” Sprunger said about the rescue rope project.
Support from the community for the Jenson Rescue Rope Project has exceeded what Sprunger expected.
Each kit costs about $40 to put together and this spring and summer the word spread and donations came in.
“Before we knew it, we had enough money for 100 of them,” Sprunger said.
The goal is to install kits at ponds, lakes and other bodies of water throughout East Wayne’s coverage area and beyond. Residents from Fredericksburg, Wooster and other areas have contacted the fire district about the ropes, which are free, but many people have made donations toward them.
“It was amazing to see the community outreach to everyone sharing it on Facebook and doing their part to get it out and especially to people who have ponds and lakes nearby so they can put the Jenson rope in there to have that extra safety precaution,” he said.
He said Kidron Volunteer Fire Department has offered similar throw ropes for their coverage area.
Residents can install the ropes themselves or ask an East Wayne member to come out to the property. Sprunger said he hopes the ropes become common by bodies of water.
“It’s almost like a fire extinguisher – you see them everywhere and you hope you never have to use it,” Sprunger said. “It’s there in case they do need it.”