EAU CLAIRE, Wis. - One minute Andy Gardner was about to leave work. The next he was pulling a toddler from a dangerous mechanism used to reset bowling pins.
Gardner, a 23-year-old University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student, had just finished his shift at Wagner's Lanes in Eau Claire at 5:30 p.m. Sunday and was about to leave the building when shouting caught his attention.
He turned and noticed the young boy had wandered down a bowling alley and toward the pins, seemingly unnoticed. A few steps later, the child passed a laser that triggered a reset mechanism that assumed a bowling ball, not a toddler, had just passed by. A mechanized arm dropped and pulled the boy and downed pins into a pit behind the bowling lane. At the same time, a pin setter descended from above to collect pins that were still standing.
Recognizing the danger, Gardner sprinted toward the child, racing along the plastic covering of the ball return between two lanes, a path that offered more sure footing than the slippery, oiled lanes.
Neil Haas of Cadott was bowling for his first time at Wagner's when the bowling alley suddenly went eerily quiet.
"Everyone had stopped bowling," Haas said. "Then we saw this little guy on his hands and knees near the pin area ... then the little kid was dragged into the pit, and we were watching the pin setter come down."
Onlookers watched in fear as the mechanized arm swept the downed pins and the boy into the ball pit.
"Everyone was gasping. This kid was in really serious trouble," Haas said.
Then Haas noticed Gardner whizzing toward the boy.
"He got down there fast," Haas said. "He didn't think twice about anything. He just reacted."
As Gardner reached the end of the lane, he hit a "kill" switch that stopped the machinery moving the pins. Then he reached the boy.
"He was crying and didn't want to move, but it didn't look like he'd been hurt," Gardner said. "I slid him towards me on his belly a little bit," he said.
Gardner, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds, said his narrow build allowed him to maneuver around the pin-clearing machinery and reach the boy. He then handed the child to a young woman who had followed the boy in a vain attempt to reach him before he was swept up with the pins. The girl then led the toddler back to his mother.
Gardner said he doesn't know the name of the toddler or his family members.
"They did say, 'Thank you. We're sorry about that,' " he said.