Welcome to Sweetwater County, Wyoming. You’re looking at 10,500 square miles of deer and antelope playing. Where seldom is heard any cell phone reception. This is God’s country.
Sweetwater lies nestled between Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, clinging to the underbelly of the Cowboy State like a bloated tick. This is some of the most magnificent terrain in the Union.
This isn’t a county you hear talked about often, and with good reason. There’s nothing here. The county itself is larger than nine U.S. states, but the population is barely big enough to form a Methodist choir.
Wild horses thrive in Sweetwater. About 1,500 of them roam across the high desert, cantering among the greasewood, the pepperweed, and the pink hopsage. This is an extremely remote region. In a dire emergency, you’d be hard pressed to find a TJ Maxx.
A few days ago, Ryan was late for work, driving among the miles of sagebrush along Highway 374 when he saw something that caught his eye.
There in the distance, nestled beneath the shadow of a large rock butte, was an olive-drab house. It was a modest home, with children’s toys littering the lawn—that is, if you can call a bunch of dirt a “lawn.”
Ryan saw flames shooting from the windows.
His truck skidded to a stop. He glanced around but saw no emergency lightbars, and heard no sirens.
This is Wyoming. Emergency response time in the Forty-Fourth Sate is not speedy. In most U.S. states, the average emergency response time is 15 minutes, which is about the time it takes to defrost a frozen burrito. Wyoming’s statewide response time, however, is upwards of 35 minutes.
Ryan did not waste time. He hit the brakes, then leapt out of his truck, and approached the two kids standing in the driveway. They were small children, both under age 10. Both scared spitless. Their faces were red from the sub-zero windchills, their eyes bloodshot with panic.
He asked the kids whether anyone was inside the home. The kids, immobilized by fright, nodded their heads. They said something to the tune of: “Our mama and brother are inside.”
Ryan glanced at the house. Pillars of fire were erupting from the kitchen.
The first thing you should know about Ryan Pasborg is that he used to be a firefighter over in Superior (pop. 211). This was not his first saddle bronc ride, he had been trained for this sort of thing.
Still, there is one quality that no amount of technical training at the fire academy can provide, and that is uncommon courage. You either have it or your don’t.
Currently, there are 1,216,200 working firefighters in the U.S., and 745,000 of those men and women are volunteers who work crummy hours. Volunteers do this for free, mind you. Together they protect 68 percent of the U.S. population.
Simply put, if you’ve ever wanted to see uncommon courage, visit your local fire brigade.
Ryan sprinted into the flaming house.
“He didn’t have time to think,” Deputy Jason Mower later told KSTU 13. “He knew what he thought was the right thing to do and he acted.”
Ryan crashed inside, dropped to all fours, and crawled through a world of brown smoke and ash. Visibility was nil. Breathing was impossible. Ryan was working blind, and his lungs were immediately burning.
He commando-crawled into the kitchen, shouting, but getting no response.
He bumped into limp the body of a 4-year-old. He carried the child outside, and placed the boy into his truck with the other siblings. Then, because Ryan hadn’t had enough fun yet, he plunged into the inferno again, looking for Mama.
He found her. She was in rough shape. The young woman was severely burned, struggling for air.
Ryan dragged the woman outside into the biting Wyoming frost. She had already quit breathing, so he began chest compressions.
Meantime, the woman’s children were watching Ryan from behind his windshield, their eyes widened with horror, their cheeks slick with tears. Who was this guy? Who was this perfect stranger, breaking their mother’s ribs with his bare hands, performing mouth-to-mouth?
The woman finally breathed. It was almost miraculous the way her abdomen instantly tightened and her ribcage expanded. She pulled in a sudden gasp of air and her eyes opened.
When the calvary arrived, Sweetwater’s first responders found a 32-year-old man, painted in black soot, hacking and coughing, carrying a badly burned woman in his arms.
Ryan Pasborg. A passerby. Just some guy on his way to work one morning.
Lightbars flickered to life and filled the air with red and blue. Sirens whined. Tires screeched. Mother and child were both flown to the University of Utah to be treated for burns. They are not out of the woods yet, but they are alive.
“People like Ryan,” said Deputy Mower, “are a testament to the overwhelming power and strength of a community that we are so fortunate to share with one another as friends and neighbors here in Sweetwater County.”