Fiancée commits to legacy of Earl Francis Higgins

Earl Francis Higgins with fiancée Nancy J. Rigg. Rigg helped establish a memorial fund in honor of Higgins after she witnessed Higgins enter the flood-swollen Los Angeles River in an attempt to help a 10-year-old boy who was struggling in the water. Higgins was swept away by the current and drowned.

After her fiancé, Earl Francis Higgins, died aiding a boy who fell into the Los Angeles River, Nancy J. Rigg committed herself to advocacy for improved swift-water rescue training. She also vowed that Higgins, a posthumous awardee of the Carnegie Medal in 1980, would not be forgotten.

Rigg’s efforts included her involvement in the Higgins and Langley Memorial and Education Fund, which is devoted to honoring outstanding water-rescue operations across the globe. The group, which will reach its 25th year in 2018, also bears the name of the late Jeffrey Langley, who was a Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighter-paramedic.

In September 2017, the most-recent class of Higgins and Langley Memorial Awards in Swiftwater Rescue recipients included emergency responders from Canada and Australia, as well as the U.S. In particular, the group recognized the coordination among 30 North Carolina teams that rescued more than 2,300 people from flooding related to Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

“We feel very honored that this award has survived all these years on worthy recipients,” said Rigg, who lives in Camarillo, Calif.

The memorial fund, which originally began in 1993 as a committee of the National Association for Search and Rescue, now has a connection to the International Association of Water Rescue Professionals, which provides the setting for the award presentations in South Bend, Ind.

Steve Miller, chairman of the memorial fund’s board, said some studies indicate firefighters are four times more likely to die in response to a swift-water emergency than a fire. Miller, who has more than 40 years of experience as a firefighter, was involved in the formation of a river rescue team in Montgomery County in Maryland in the 1990s. At the time of Higgins’s act, he said, there was little first-responders in Los Angeles could do, citing minimal training for a water rescue.

Rigg was with Higgins on Feb. 17, 1980, when the 29-year-old writer and filmmaker ran to help James. G. Ventrillo, 10, at the nearest river bank. Thirty years later, in a story broadcast on KPCC, a Pasadena (Calif.) radio station, Ventrillo said Higgins had extended his belt to him, and he grabbed onto it.

“This one second would change both of our lives, obviously, forever because what it did was it stopped me from going out any further,” Ventrillo said then. Higgins soon after entered the water.

While Ventrillo made it out safely that afternoon, Higgins was missing for nine months. His body had been swept about 30 miles downstream, Rigg said.

Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Rigg said, it was a challenge to encourage emergency officials in the L.A.-area that they needed better training. The turning point came with the high-profile death of a 15-year-old boy in the same river in 1992. Television coverage of failed efforts to rescue the boy contributed to the establishment of swift-water teams shortly thereafter.

In the aftermath, Rigg developed a video, “No Way Out,” that was distributed in Los Angeles County schools to explain the dangers of flood-control channels to students.

Later, on the prompting of officials from six fire departments, Rigg set up the Drowning Support Network to provide a community for families of loved ones who were missing. That network, which is sponsored by the memorial fund, since has grown to include a private Facebook group. She also has written articles for several publications for emergency officials.

“I feel like I really honored my promise to Earl,” Rigg said.

—Chris Foreman, case investigator

Related articles:

Return to imPULSE index.
See PDF of this issue.