It was a true-to-form chilly, wet California February. Torrential rains had sent Los Angeles houses sliding off hillsides and covered roads with mud. After an unrelenting nine-day stretch, Sunday morning brought a brief letup, but already much of the area was in a state of emergency.
Two newcomers to the city, Earl F. Higgins and Nancy J. Rigg, both 29, were restless to get out after the extended rains. They left their apartment for a welcome stroll in the sun.
They had moved to L.A. from Washington just three weeks earlier. Higgins, one of triplet sons born to deaf Beltsville parents, had graduated from High Point High School in Beltsville and the University of Maryland, and had helped found a television and film studio at Galladudet College. Rigg, who had worked with him at Gallaudet, was nurturing a budding acting and writing career in TV and film production.
Together they had made the rounds of contacts, hoping to break into the film industry. He was a film producer, a photographer, a writer of children's stories. She was an actress, writer and television producer. Together they worked as a team, writing articles and producing TV programs and films, often for the deaf community. They were pursuing a dream.
On that mid-February Sunday morning they were after little more than a breath of fresh air.
"Earl and I decided originally to go around the block," said Rigg, "but for some reason which I cannot explain we turned right instead of left" and headed over the Sunnynook footbridge, which crosses a freeway and the Los Angeles River to Griffith Park on the other side.
The Los Angeles River, encased in its cement banks, was swift and swollen to flood level from the days of rain. Under the footbridge the waters churned high between the closely set abutments. As they strolled, the couple noticed several boys, apparently also grateful for a break from the constant rain, playing along the river banks. They were inside a high wire fence designed to keep people away from the dangerous waters.
One little boy was slaloming his bike up and down the sloping cement embankment, "taunting the water," Rigg remembers. Seeing the danger, Higgins and Rigg yelled to the boys to keep away from the water, but the roar of the river drowned out their voices. Suddenly, the boy drove his front wheel into the river. The racing water tore the bike from his grasp and, as Higgins and Riggs watched, horrified, he stepped in to recover the bike and was sucked into the torrent.
Acting on impulse, Higgins, an athletic man nearly 6 foot 4, ran across the footbridge, climbed through a hole in the fence and tried to reach the boy from the bank. But the child was being swept toward the bridge supports. Higgins stepped in, the current grabbed him, too, and he was gone with the boy.
"I never saw the boy or Earl again," said Rigg.
Two miles downstream, rescue workers told her, the boy was washed ashore unharmed. Higgins' body was not recovered until the week before last. It was found by workmen dredging Los Angeles Harbor.
She sits now in the living room of the Higgins' Beltsville home, her honey hair falling in waves around a long, sad face, green eyes reddening as she talks. Her voice often drops to a whisper. She speaks slowly and signs her words for Francis and Catherine Higgins, who sit watching as the account of their son's heroic death unfolds. Rigg has come east to bring Earl Higgins' body home to his family.
"Both Earl and I love children very much," she says. "Probably one of the most instinctive motivations is to help a child in need."
After the incident, she "was determined that Earl had somehow gotten lost. We were new to L.A. Maybe he was injured -- amnesia, all of those endless possibilities that had to be checked out. When you love someone you are compelled to do everything you can . . ." her voice breaks.
So began the searching. She called every hospital. She patrolled the berm road along the river from the footbridge to the harbor. Her father's employer Occidental Petrolem, sent out the company helicopter and she searched the river further. She kept after the police, who were busy with numerous rain-related disasters. But she found nothing.
"It's so important to have remains," she explains. "That's what makes it so difficult to believe that someone's dead -- if there's no physical proof."
But there was nothing. Finally in March, Rigg flew back to Washington for memorial services at Calvary Baptist Church, where Francis Higgins serves as a lay minister for the deaf.
Then Rigg flew back to L.A., to handle the legal matters and to wait and grieve. With no friends, no family and no job in Los Angeles, it was especially difficult. But she had to stay and wait.
Later in the summer someone -- Rigg doesn't know who -- nominated Higgins for the Carnegie Hero Fund award. The commission awards medals to persons who heroically save or attempt to save the lives of other persons. On Oct. 31, the commission awarded Higgins the Carnegie Medal. Two weeks later his body was found.
The room in the Beltsville home is warm and the family has gathered. Soon they will drive to a family plot in a Flemington, N.J., cemetery. On top of the television set are photographs of the Higgins' grandchildren. On the mantle are pictures of the Higgins clan gathered together. Rigg is in the pictures. On a shelf nearby is a faded photo of three baby boys in a triplets' stroller. Earl Higgins was the firstborn of the triplets.
Higgins' father, a professor of chemistry at Gallaudet, is tall, with a shock of white hair and a dignified, gracious manner.He loves to tell jokes -- particularly jokes about deaf people. But Earl's death has been particularly difficult for him because he was the second of the triplets to die.
"I feel very proud he did such a noble thing as to risk his life for a little boy, but at the same time we are really grieved by the loss of our son," he says. "I feel we have been blessed with a fine family of children and we had hope for their futures. Unfortunately, Earl's and Carl's ended shortly. Our faith in God has helped to sustain us in this trying time."
Now Rigg is hoping to raise funds for a memorial gift to Gallaudet College, because so much of Earl's professional work was done with the deaf. Articles in the Los Angeles papers brought some small contributions from people there who were touched by the story. But more money is needed, and Rigg said donations are being collected by the Center for Deafness in Denver, Colo., which Higgins directed in 1978.
At Gallaudet College, President Edward C. Merrill Jr. said Higgins' effort to help someone else was characteristic. "Higgins' friends here and friends of his fine family will remember his commitment to other people."
"The fact that he would try to save another human being certainly came as no surprise," said Gallaudet vice president Donald V. Torr. "He charged at life and that was one thing that cost him his life. Hero is a word for it. I thought he was a very superior person who continually offered things and finally offered his life."
Rigg will continue to work toward raising the memorial fund, but she isn't sure what her next step will be."I'm going home for Christmas to try to gather my thoughts and figure out what's next for me," she said. "My future was so tied up with Earl's, personally and professionally, that it's been difficult to sort out which of our goals were right for two people and which are valid for one."