- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

EL PASO, Texas The Franklin Canal running along the U.S.-Mexico border here is deceiving.

The placid-appearing surface hides a deadly current, running about 15 miles an hour enough to easily pull a grown man under.

"We'll be called out here 60 times this year on rescue attempts," said El Paso Fire Department Lt. Martin Widtfeldt, who heads the department's 18-member water rescue team. "And there's a 99 percent chance it will be an illegal alien who had no idea how dangerous this canal can be."

The canal, 6 to 8 feet deep, runs along the Rio Grande and serves as an irrigation source for nearby ranches and farms. It is an obstacle many illegal aliens choose to cross as they head north into the United States.

"We try to convince them we're the good guys and we're there to help them," said Lt. Widtfeldt, noting that rescue team members because of the speed of the water use helmets, pulleys, ropes secured to telephone poles and "a lot of muscle" to pull would-be victims out of the water.

"Sometimes they don't cooperate until the rush of the water convinces them otherwise," he said.

The U.S. Border Patrol here also has a swift-water rescue team, which performed or assisted in dozens of rescues last year. In an effort to reduce the number of water deaths here, the Border Patrol began its rescue training in 1999 and used the Franklin Canal as its classroom.

The Franklin Canal and others here have become popular among smugglers looking to guide immigrants into this country through El Paso's numerous waterways and drainage tunnels. A dozen illegal aliens drowned in waterways on the U.S. side of the border near El Paso in 2001, compared with 17 in 2000.

"The canals can be very dangerous," Lt. Widtfeldt said. "And a lot of people have found that out the hard way."

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