Kiana French remembers having fun fishing with her father and younger sister Sunday afternoon and, the next minute, struggling to stay afloat in the frigid water.

Their 12-foot aluminum boat on Parlin Pond in northern Somerset County had been taking on water, little by little, and the wind was picking up.

Her father, Gary French, was manning the motor attached to the stern, while Kiana, 16, was in the middle, and Cierrah, her 14-year-old sister, was at the bow.

“I said, ‘Give me one of your cowboy boots,’ ” French recalled saying to Cierrah. “I took her boot and started trying to get some of the water out.’ ”

The more she bailed, the quicker the boat took on water. Moments later, the unthinkable happened.

“The boat filled up with water and then it flipped over and me and my sister were in the water,” Kiana said.

She recalled the events Monday from her grandparents’ home in Skowhegan, where she and her sister live.

When they were dumped into the water, Kiana said, she quickly put on her life jacket and saw Cierrah’s and her father’s life jackets floating away. She retrieved the life jackets and helped her sister into one as their father clung to the boat.

“My sister was freaking out, and she’s like: ‘I’m sorry. This is my fault because I wanted to catch another fish.’ ” Kiana said. “It really wasn’t her fault. I made sure she was OK, and I tried to convince Dad to put his life jacket on. He was in shock. He wasn’t even trying. He just hung onto the boat.”

They were so far out in the middle of the pond they could not see shore, she said. And it was hard to stay above the waves.

Cierrah, who had survived cancer in her leg, was having a difficult time. She had surgery last year in Boston for choriocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer that ravaged her knee. Her leg is still painful and has caused her to feel depressed lately. Her ordeal with cancer was the subject of Morning Sentinel stories last year.

“My fingers were getting numb,” Cierrah said of being in the cold water. “I couldn’t really feel anything. I was numb and my toes were numb.”

Kiana knew the only thing to do was to get to shore herself and find help.

“I knew if I waited any longer, the currents would get worse than they already were,” she said. “I wasn’t going to waste any more energy than I needed to, so I started swimming.”

She was wearing a tank top, sweatshirt and jeans. She swam as best as she could.

“In between the waves, I went through them, not against the current,” Kiana said. “I went kind of right to left so I didn’t have to fight the current. They say I swam a long ways, but I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was sad to leave my sister and my dad behind but I felt like it was the right thing to do.”

The Skowhegan Area High School senior said she told herself not to look back at them and to just keep moving forward.

“The water was freezing,” she said. “I laid on my stomach and moved my arms above the water to help myself swim. It was really awkward. I just thought about how Dad said that fish stay toward the top of the water because it’s warmer up there.”

Kiana said she does not remember how long it took to get to shore, but it seemed like forever. Once there, she peeled her jeans off and sweatshirt and, later, her tank top, but not for the reasons given by some reports; specifically, that she thought she would be more visible to rescuers.

“I took them off because I was getting really cold,” she said, adding that news reports also said she is fair-skinned, which she is not — especially because she has been tanning.

Moving along the shoreline in just her underwear, she screamed for help at the top of her lungs every three minutes or so. And then she looked out and saw her sister and father’s heads bobbing in the water.

“I heard them screaming a lot, too,” Kiana said, “and it was just really scary. I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it because I have asthma and I’m fat. I’ve been eating a lot because of this coronavirus.”

Adrenaline kicked in, however, and she kept moving.

“At one point, I stopped for just a minute,” she said. “I thought my sister and my dad were dead, and I thought I was taking way too long. I couldn’t see their heads anymore.”

Moments later, she thought she heard someone yelling back to her. And then she saw a boat. Someone was in it. Two people, actually.

“They were looking at me, coming toward me,” Kiana said. “I started pointing my finger to the water and I yelled: ‘They’re in the water! They’re in the water!'”

It was a big party boat. Kiana said she did not recognize the man as Maine Game Warden Kris MacCabe, whom she had met previously and who was a celebrity on the show “North Woods Law.” He was not wearing a uniform, she said. She also would learn later that MacCabe’s wife, Emily, had heard her screams for help at about 1:30 p.m. The driver of the boat was a camp owner.

“I was thankful that they saved me,” Kiana said, “but I really wanted them to save my sister and my dad.”

What Kiana did not know was another boat had rescued Cierrah, so when Kiana saw her father struggling alone in the water, she thought her sister had drowned. Soon after, when Kiana saw Cierrah aboard the other boat, she wept with joy.

“I cried,” she said. ” I was really happy to see both of them. My boat picked up my dad. He was the coldest out of both of them. He was in shock. He was really blue when he got in my boat and Cierrah was shivering.”

Cierrah said Monday she was sure she and her father would not make it. They tried to swim but the waves kept pushing them back.

“We were trying to stay above the water and not choke,” Cierrah said. “I was trying to keep lighthearted. I was trying to tell jokes to Dad. He wasn’t really saying anything. He tried swimming first. He stopped. We were both choking. I was so tired. I had no energy left and my knee was sore.”

Once rescued, they were whisked to shore, where a concerned group awaited their arrival.

“There was a whole bunch of people,” Kiana said. “All of the wives took us in and warmed us up. They gave us clothes and blankets. These people were really, really nice.”

Finally, EMTs showed up and checked Gary French and his daughters. Ray, the man who owned the camp, gave them hot chocolate. A game warden who interviewed Kiana called her grandparents, Wayne and Alicia Blodgett, with whom the girls live in Skowhegan.

Asked what gave her the strength and perseverance to continue on, both in the cold water and then trekking through the woods, Kiana said she thought it had to do with family.

“It was more of a compassion type of thing,” she said. “I really love my sister. My sister is pretty much a part of me. I care about her and we’ve been through a lot together. I didn’t want anything to happen to her, and I love my dad. Family comes first.”

Asked what she learned from the ordeal, Cierrah said that while she had been depressed lately because of her knee pain, nearly drowning was traumatic.

“I think I learned that I really would not like to die,” she said.

Their grandmother, Alicia Blodgett, said Monday the girls arrived home at about 8:30 p.m. Sunday. She said she and her husband were relieved — and proud of Kiana for helping to save her sister and father.

“Somebody was watching over them for sure,” Blodgett said. “And the wardens and those people on shore, I can’t thank them enough because they really, really helped them. Kiana wants to go back up to that camp and bring them fiddleheads. They were awfully nice people, she said.”

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