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Jana Hollingsworth, Forum Communications, Published December 24 2012

Were there angels in flooded culvert?

DULUTH, Minn. – Eight-year-old Kenny Markiewicz occasionally brings up the epic underground journey that took him more than a third of a mile through a culvert surging with water, but he does it in an indirect way.

“He says, ‘You don’t have to worry about anything happening. If we leave this world, we’re going to heaven,’ ” said his mom, Amber Markiewicz.

That’s the lesson he learned this summer, she said, when he was nearly a casualty of June’s record flooding in Duluth.

The Markiewicz family is from Lake Charles, La., and they were visiting relatives in Bayview Heights near Proctor this summer during the flood.

On June 20, Kenny and his cousin went outside after the rain to play in puddles half a block from the house.

A culvert with a 2½-foot opening was submerged in a puddle on the side of the road.

The small boy was sucked into the culvert by the powerful force of the current. He was spit out into woods behind the Zenith Terrace mobile home park and, after walking along the creek, was found by park resident Gordon Marshall, who heard his shouts. Marshall took the bleeding, dazed boy to his home and called authorities.

Several people, professional and not, pitched in to help find Kenny in a rescue that began and ended in 30 minutes. People jumped into the water, Markiewicz said, lifted manholes, held her back from going through the culvert herself and wrapped her in blankets.

“They came from everywhere,” she said. “They were there for me and my son. God was on our side.”

The story gained national attention and the family was overwhelmed by the response, Markiewicz said. After the story aired on “Good Morning America,” she and Kenny relied on family to keep additional publicity at bay.

“He was very traumatized,” she said. “We stepped back.”

Kenny, months later, still has difficulty recalling his trip through the culvert. When they talk about it, he says there were two boys showing him the way, his mom said. She explains to him that that isn’t possible, but he insists on it, she said.

“I don’t know: angels?” Markiewicz asked.

Two days after the incident, in an interview, Kenny recalled the water being fast and overflowing and the tunnel dark and long. Kenny suffered cuts, a concussion and a sprained ankle. The lasting effect is a fear of water.

“As long as we’re at the pool, he’s OK,” she said. “But we can’t get him to go to the beach.”

Kenny, a third-grader who is on the autism spectrum, excels in school and is involved in church, Markiewicz said.

“He’s recovered completely,” she said, although he did manage to break his arm in September. The family has called Marshall and sent him Kenny’s school picture. Markiewicz credits him with helping to save her son’s life.

The picture came with a note that says, “To our hero, with love,” Marshall said.

“Something happens in your lifetime and you’re a two-second hero,” he said. “I’m really glad I was there. I don’t consider myself a hero, but you do what you do when you have to do it.”

Looking at the picture of Kenny, with that shock of red hair, wearing a blue shirt and a red tie, he said, “You kind of get a little tear in your eye. I think about what could have happened. Gosh. He was lucky.”

Duluth city culverts generally don’t have grates, which allowed Kenny to enter the culvert and which also allowed him to exit without becoming trapped. Grates clog and can cause flooding, city engineers have said, so the city generally only installs them if residents ask for them because of small children or animals living nearby.

Child security can be tenuous, Markiewicz said.

“You can walk out your door and it can be as innocent as playing in a puddle – or now, going to school,” she said. “In the blink of an eye, they can be gone.”

She said she’s become even more protective of Kenny since the incident.

“I’m still amazed at the thought of him traveling underground like that, and I wonder what went through his little head,” she said. “It’s very frightening and scary, and I cry. No one wants to see their child hurt.”

Jana Hollingsworth reports for the Duluth News Tribune

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