When Wade Johnson's 8-year-old son asked if he'd saved any lives in the aftermath of a boat capsizing in Missouri on Thursday, all he could answer with was the heartbreaking truth.
"I attempted," he told the boy. "I was not successful in the two attempts I made, but nonetheless, I gave all that I could."
Hours before, when he first heard that a duck had overturned in Table Rock Lake, Johnson's mind first envisioned the quacking waterfowl.
"Then it dawned on me, 'Oh, wait, it's those duck boats,'" he said, remembering the funny-looking amphibious boats for tourists.
Johnson, 32, of Ankeny was on a family vacation in Branson, Missouri, with his wife, Melissa, and their two boys, Kyler and Camden. They had plans to board the showboat the Branson Belle for dinner and a show while cruising around the lake.
But he quickly found himself in the middle of a national tragedy.
The amphibious duck boat overturned Thursday evening, ultimately killing 17 people. A thunderstorm sent 5-foot waves crashing over the vessel, but authorities have said it could take up to a year to determine why the boat went under — other vessels in the area withstood the harsh conditions.
The sudden thunderstorm in Branson delayed the Johnson family's plans, forcing them to take shelter in a nearby shop at about 7:15 p.m. When Johnson realized the boat had capsized, he went out to the boardwalk and saw people bobbing in the water.
"I didn't see the boat at all," he said. "As far as I knew, it had sunk."
Crew members of the still-docked Branson Belle were busy throwing life preservers into the water and pulling people out.
Johnson approached the dock and asked if he could help.
He explained that he was a registered nurse in Iowa and a member of the military. The staffer radioed in a superior asking if he could send in the Iowan. They waited a couple minutes for a response.
"He said, 'Let's go,' " Johnson said. "And at that point in time, I opened the gate and off I went."
Boat accident wipes out an entire family — save for one survivor
Johnson rushed down to a little tugboat, where people were being pulled out from the water.
Waves were crashing over the boat, which bounced in the wake.
A nursing student and another bystander were performing CPR on an elderly woman.
Knowing how exhausting chest compressions can prove, he jumped in to relieve another volunteer. After a while, a fatigued rescuers' pumping of the heart becomes ineffective, he said.
He switched over to examine the victim's airway. But the woman's lungs were filled with fluid and there was little he could do without advanced medical tools.
After five minutes, she still had no pulse and was not breathing. So Johnson called it, and moved on to the next patient.
While he had been working on the woman, rescuers had pulled in a little boy, who was taken inside the Branson Belle, away from the pouring rain outside.
He assisted a few other survivors who seemed to be in shock and then asked about the little boy.
He was inside, at the bottom of a staircase.
Again, he started checking for a pulse and starting pumping his chest. But it was futile.
"He was not able to be revived," Johnson said.
He guessed the boy was about nine years old.
Johnson would later find out that both victims he'd tried to save were members of the Coleman family. Nine members of that family died in the boat accident.
Johnson had briefly treated Tia Coleman, the only member of the family to survive.
She lost her husband, three children, her uncle, nephew, mother-in-law, father-in-law and sister-in-law. In an emotional news conference Saturday, she told reporters how her Indianapolis home was often filled with family members. And now she would return without her husband or kids.
"I don’t know how I’m going to do it," she said.
When asked whether she was happy to be alive, she couldn't say.
"I don't know yet," she said. "Time will tell."
'I don't see myself as a hero'
After more than an hour of tirelessly trying to save people, the rain had soaked through Johnson's shorts and shirt. He was starting to get cold even in the balmy July weather.
He was exhausted, so he returned with his family to their rented condo, where they stayed in and ate spaghetti for dinner.
The next day, the family quickly resumed their vacation of amusement parks and hiking adventures.
"It still does weigh on me, occasionally. But I know, after everything I've been through, you can't let it weigh you down too much," he said. "You still have to enjoy your life. You have to take pride, knowing you did everything you could."
Johnson has served in the national guard for 15 years. He was deployed twice — once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. And he's seen plenty of illness, injuries and death in his five years as an emergency room nurse at the VA Central Iowa Health System.
That makes a tragedy like the one he witnessed in Missouri more bearable.
"Really, it's pretty manageable for me," he said. "To put it lightly: This is not the first death I've encountered."
Since Thursday, Johnson said he's heard people throw around the word "hero," which he rejects.
"I don't see myself as a hero," he said. "I see myself as someone who was trained and knew how to react in that situation. I just did what I knew how to do."
Since the accident, many questions have arisen about the safety of the duck boats, which are based on World War II-era military landing craft. One safety expert says he warned the Branson duck boat company nearly a year ago that a design flaw in some of the vehicles’ exhaust could cause them to sink in choppy water.
A report released Saturday by the Missouri State Highway Patrol showed none of the passengers or crew were wearing a "safety device." While life jackets are a normal — and life-saving — accessory in aquatic recreational activities, they weren't required to be worn by the Ride the Ducks company.
Coleman said the boat's crew had shown passengers where life jackets were stored, but did not distribute them.
Johnson boarded one of the amphibious vessels several years ago on a trip to Wisconsin Dells.
"I honestly think the ducks themselves are pretty safe," he said. "I believe this incident was just one of those unpredictable kind of things... You can never predict what the weather's going to do."
He said the weather turned quickly that evening. On the drive to the boat dock, he heard a weather alert on the radio. Looking in the rear-view mirror, he saw the ominous clouds on the horizon.
But it passed quickly: Within an hour or so, the rain vanished and the wind died down along with the waves.
Johnson says he continues playing the rescue attempts in his head, questioning whether he did everything he could.
"I wanted to make sure I left it all there. I believe I did," he said. "As a medical professional and a military person, I always analyze every situation."
His older son, naturally curious, was full of questions afterward. When he told him he was unable to save the two victims, his son didn't miss a beat.
"He just told me that he's really proud of me and that he really looks up to me," he said.
Johnson wishes his boys hadn't had to witness the aftermath of the boating accident. But he hopes they've learned a lesson from it.
"It's heartwarming for me to know they were able to see an example of what somebody can do if they're willing to do it," he said. "And to know they could have that power to do that and to help out."
Follow Kevin Hardy on Twitter: @kevinmhardy