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Near drowning in Grand Forks: 'If it weren't for them, I would be dead right now'

Marty Ustanko, left, hugs Habimana Francois after receiving a Lifesaving Award during the Grand Forks Police Awards Ceremony on Wednesday afternoon. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

Lois Ustanko said it happened quietly.

"People always say that if someone is drowning, there'll be a lot of screaming and thrashing, and there wasn't. It was just we noticed something at the bottom of the pool," she said.

That something was Habimana Francois, an 18-year-old who had been swimming with a group of young people in the indoor pool at a south Grand Forks apartment complex.

"My husband quickly jumped into the pool because there was no movement, and he was at the very bottom in 8 feet of water," Ustanko said.

Her husband, Marty, pulled Francois to the side of the pool, and she and another man pulled Francois onto the deck. They didn't know how long he had been underwater.

"It wasn't a lot of time, but it was enough time that he was not responding at all," she said.

Ustanko, a 53-year-old nurse, found that Francois was not breathing and did not have a pulse, so she started CPR. After a while, he started breathing again and was taken to the hospital, where he regained consciousness.

That was Aug. 16, 2009. Jump ahead to Wednesday when the Ustankos were recognized for their efforts at the Grand Forks Police Department's awards ceremony.

"What they did is kind of like the biggest thing to me," Francois told the Herald. "Because if it weren't for them, I would be dead right now."

Francois, who attended Wednesday's ceremony with the Ustankos, said he remembers jumping into the pool, sinking to the bottom and not being able to swim to the top.

"I don't know how I got out the water," he said. "When I wake up again, I thought I was, like, sleeping, dreaming. So, I opened my eyes and see cops by me, all over. I was like, 'What happened?'"

Francois, who's originally from the African country of Burundi, came to Grand Forks in 2007 after spending time in a refugee camp in neighboring Tanzania. He met the Ustankos through a Holy Family Catholic Church program that assists refugees in town.

Ustanko said Francois was one of eight to 10 kids she and her husband were hosting at the pool on that summer day. "We did have the appropriate number of adults," she said. "We were doing a lot of things right."

Marty Ustanko, 62, noted what a catastrophe it would have been if Francois had drowned.

"If he had to go through all that tragedy to come here and die in a pool, I mean, he has his whole life ahead of him," Marty Ustanko said.

Francois, who is now 19, has made a full recovery. He's even built his stamina and speed to the point that he's a state-ranked cross-country runner for Red River High School. But that took time.

For a significant part of the 2009 season, Francois had difficulty running because of water lingering in his lungs. After charging up hills, he said, his back would hurt.

This season, things have changed.

"These days, I'm doing OK," he said. "I'm up the hill; I keep running."