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Coon Rapids, Minn., woman, Willmar, Minn., girl to be honored for saving girl's older sister

Siblings Luke, 8, from left, Hannah, 6, and Lilly Kate de Vries, 5. When Hannah was unconscious at the bottom of a swimming pool in Willmar last summer, her younger sister was the one who found help. (Submitted photo courtesy of Amy de Vries)

WILLMAR -- It's every parent's worst nightmare: Receiving the news that your 6-year-old child has been pulled, unconscious, from the bottom of a pool.

Thankfully, for Nathan and Amy de Vries of Willmar, this nightmare had a happier ending than some -- due in large part to the courage of their younger daughter and a stranger who was in the right place at the right time.

Last October, 6-year-old Hannah de Vries was attending a birthday party at the Country Inn & Suites in Willmar with her then 4-year-old sister, Lilly Kate. While there were adults present, no one remembers seeing Hannah go under.

Her younger sister was the one who spotted her lying at the bottom of the pool. Even in her shock, Lilly Kate knew she had to help. She began crying loudly and trying to attract attention.

It was Leeann Hiltner, of Coon Rapids, who noticed Lilly Kate and then saw Hannah at the bottom. Hiltner immediately dove in to retrieve her and brought her to the side of the pool. Before Hiltner could begin administering CPR, Hannah gargled, spit up and started to breathe again.

"I didn't think. I just jumped in and grabbed her," Hiltner said. "I thought she would need CPR, but bubbles started coming out of her mouth, so I tipped her over to one side and waited for the paramedics."

Amy de Vries says that when she and her husband learned what had happened, all that went through their minds was "just panic."

"We just knew we needed to get there right away," de Vries said.

By the time they arrived, Hannah was being checked over by the paramedics, groggy but responsive. After the accident, Hannah's temperature spiked and her breathing became abnormal, so she did have to be taken by helicopter to the Children's Hospital in the Twin Cities. Today, however, she is perfectly fine.

"There's no lasting damage," de Vries said. "She can't even remember what happened. She just says she fell asleep."

Lilly Kate and Hiltner will both be honored today for their courageous acts with a Distinguished Service Award from the Willmar Kiwanis Club, part of the Kiwanis Key Club District Convention.

Don McGrath, awards chairman for the Willmar Kiwanis Club, said both Lilly Kate and Hiltner showed true heroism that day.

"We wanted to honor their courageous actions by presenting them with this award," McGrath said. "Our motto is serving the children of the world. That's exactly what happened here. It's an ideal Kiwanis recognition."

Hiltner, a mother of three children herself, says she just did what any parent would do.

"There was no other thing I could do," Hiltner said. "I just happened to be the one who noticed her first. I truly credit her little sister with saving Hannah's life."

Today's Kiwanis event will be the first time that Hiltner and Hannah's parents will meet. Hiltner says she looks forward to meeting with them and especially to seeing Hannah and Lilly Kate again.

"I am really looking forward to seeing Hannah well," Hiltner said. "And Lilly Kate, too. That image of Hannah when I pulled her out of the pool has stuck with me, so I'm looking forward to seeing her happy and healthy and normal."

Amy de Vries says she appreciates the opportunity to thank Hiltner face to face, because she knows how much differently the situation could have turned out.

"We're just very thankful," de Vries said. "It's hard to put into words. There were lots of angels watching over Hannah that day."

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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