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Ex-inmate, 2 others to be honored for saving life of 2-year-old

Girl falls through damaged septic tank lid. (Source: CBS 5 News) Girl falls through damaged septic tank lid. (Source: CBS 5 News)
© Henry Ricketts (CBS 5 News) © Henry Ricketts (CBS 5 News)
(Source: CBS 5 News) (Source: CBS 5 News)

Two men and a woman credited with saving the life of a 2-year-old Pinal County girl who fell into a septic tank and nearly drowned will be honored by the sheriff's office Tuesday.

Henry Ricketts, 27, of Maricopa, and Audencio Rios, 29, of Standfield, and Chelsea Cunningham, 28, of Alberta, Canada, will be given the Pinal County Sheriff's Office Life-Saving Award at a 2 p.m. ceremony at the sheriff's office in Florence. 

The girl was walking with her mother and went chasing her dog Saturday morning on West Papago Road, near the city of Maricopa, when she stepped on the plastic septic tank cover, said Pinal County sheriff's spokesman Tim Gaffney.

The cover flipped open and the girl fell into the septic tank and was completely submerged in about 50 inches of raw sewage, Gaffney said. The mother's screams for help reached a crowd at a nearby swap meet.

Ricketts and Rios jumped in after her, swimming around until one of the could feel the child's hair, Gaffney said. The child was pulled up after about four minutes and handed to Cunningham, later identified as a nurse.

Cunningham performed CPR and got the child breathing again.

The girl was taken to Cardon Children's Hospital, where she continued to recover Monday morning.

Ricketts, newly released from prison, went in head first to try to save the child.

"I inhaled some of the nasty water, so I had to come back up," Ricketts told CBS 5 News.

Eyes closed, Ricketts couldn't find the baby on the first try. Plenty of time had passed with no sign of the child.

Eyewitness Barbara Fowler described the scene.

"They pulled him back up, but they couldn't find her," Fowler said. "Immediately after that, another gentleman went in head-first, and they had a guy on either side holding each of his feet and dropped him down in there and he dug around and came up with that baby, by its arm."

Fowler said the child was lifeless when they brought her up. Immediately, a young woman, later identified as Cunningham, stepped in and started CPR and mouth-to-mouth and revived the girl.

"We saw that baby breathe again," Fowler said.

Three firefighters continued to administer first aid on the ride to the hospital. Two relatives, one identifying himself as the girl's grandfather, remained at the scene and held each other as they spoke to police and fire officials before making the trek to the hospital themselves.

Rescuers were not treated for any injuries, although Ricketts had some large, superficial scratches on his back that were probably the result of his contact with a pipe in the tank, first responders said.

Fowler says what she witnessed showed her the true human spirit.

"I'm proud to be in their presence, to know people come together like that," she said. "They were astounding."

The three recipients will be accompanied by the girl whose life they saved, her mother and her grandparents, Gaffney said.

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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