FERGUS FALLS — Fergus Falls resident Cameron Hanson and West Fargoan Jacob Payson put their lives at risk in 2018 to save the life of 65-year-old Leon Engelhart. Now, Hanson is being recognized for his efforts with a prestigious award for heroism.

Hanson and Payson pulled Engelhart from near-freezing water on Dec. 6, 2018, after he drove a four-wheeler into a hole in the ice on an ice fishing trip.

“I don’t know how they found out about me,” Hanson said of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, which was established by Andrew Carnegie to recognize acts of heroism. “I didn’t apply for it or anything. All of a sudden I’ve got a couple phone messages from Pennsylvania. I talked to her for 45 minutes and she listened to my whole story and took down my information. That was four or five months ago. And then I get a letter from them saying that me and 17 other people got the award.”

The Carnegie Award comes with a $5,500 cash reward and Hanson said he hasn’t decided what he wants to do with it. He’d like to get a new motorcycle, but he may hold off for now.

“I should probably be responsible with it because of the (coronavirus) pandemic,” he said. “It’s probably not a bad idea to hang on to some money like that right now.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Payson was also contacted by the Carnegie Hero Fund, but never called them back. Hanson said he was skeptical about the validity of the call.

“Jake was just as important as I was,” Hanson said. “If it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t have gotten out of the water.”

Hanson and Payson were visiting their friend Travis’ ice house on Wall Lake near Fergus Falls at the end of a particularly unfruitful day of ice fishing. Around 10 p.m. they saw Travis’ uncle, Engelhart, driving a four-wheeler toward a hole in the ice that had been kept open, despite the air temperature being 10 degrees below zero, by thousands of geese congregating on the lake.

Hanson figures Engelhart forgot about the hole and couldn’t see it in the dark.

Engelhart hit the hole and flew into the water. Hanson and Payson ran to help and told Travis to call 911 and get the ice house as warm as possible, and Hanson jumped into the water.

“I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision going in that water, but I guess I would rather die trying than to do nothing,” said Hanson, a corrections officer in Fergus Falls and an Iraq War veteran. “I think he might have swam in the wrong direction in the dark because he was a ways out in the water. But about halfway back, I was really questioning my decision. It was like having an ice cream headache pretty much the whole time.”

After Hanson got to Engelhart, he swam both of them back to the edge of the ice where Payson pulled them out of the water. Engelhart wasn’t breathing, so they administered chest compressions, and he started coughing and breathing again.

The Fergus Falls Fire Department showed up at the dock not long after they got out of the water and took Engelhart to the hospital.

“I didn’t go to the hospital because I’m a stubborn Minnesota veteran,” Hanson said.

Hanson said he has talked to Engelhart a couple of times since the accident and he has made a full recovery.

Last winter’s adventure didn’t stop the fishermen from getting back out on the ice this year, though Hanson said there were some reservations.

“That first trip out on the ice this season made me a little bit nervous, but I’m an Iraq vet and it takes a little more than that to creep me out,” he said. “We’ve been out, Jake and I, fishing this year, too.”