‘You saved my life.’

Thu, 01/24/2019 - 7:30pm

It was about 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 15.

A beautiful, calm, sunny day. About 25 degrees.

I had decided to have an enjoyable skate with my daughter, Hope, who’s 20.

We first tested the large pond north of Painted Rock on Lakeside Drive, once known as Breydert's Duck Pond. The ice was about two to three inches thick, but was black ice, the strongest ice, which can be safe for a sole skater at one-and-a-half inches thick. Anyway, we wanted even thicker ice so we chose John E.'s Tug Hole on Pilot Hill Road. I have skated for 40 years on Block Island and another 20 on a pond I grew up on in Connecticut with no accidents. So I consider myself an excellent, safe skater. We carefully tested the ice in many locations starting at the shore and going out. The ice was about three inches thick and we deemed the pond safe. I always have carried a hockey stick to aid in possible rescue. We skated for 20 minutes or so, passing a tennis ball back and forth between our sticks.

At the south end of the pond, I heard a scream from Hope as she broke through the ice. Within seconds, I was in the water next to her. We were up to our heads in probably mid-30-degree water. After the initial shock, I tried to gain composure and think about how to get out the fastest way. As a first responder for eight years, and a 40-year fireman, I know how important it is to keep calm in emergencies. Just a few days ago, Hope had told me about an ice rescue video she had seen. She said it is best to kick with your feet and try to propel your body from the water onto the ice and stretch out your torso to disperse your weight onto the ice. This is in hope that you can find thicker ice to be able to stand up.

We were both thrashing in the water trying to keep breaking ice to get to stronger ice. This continued for 10 to 15 minutes. I looked at her and thought, "Are we both going to die out here?" I believe it is a parent's job to protect his or her children, even through adulthood. I looked at the shore, which was at least 75 feet away and wondered if we would have the strength to keep breaking ice a couple feet at a time to reach shore. This would probably take at least a half hour. I knew that at the temperature of the water, we would probably become paralyzed and unable to move in less than 30 minutes total. Without any flotation equipment, we would then drown.

We did yell loudly for help, for a few minutes, but no one heard. As I continued to break ice and waste valuable energy, I heard Hope yell "I'm out!" She had done exactly what the video had shown. I had been trying to do this but had several layers of bulky clothes and out-weighed her by about 50 pounds. She stood up with her hockey stick in her hand. I said, "You've got to pull me out!" If she had leaned into the hole and tried to pull me out with her hand, I am sure the ice would have continued to break, sending her back in the water with me. I prayed that with each of us holding the very end of the stick, I would be four to five feet from her, and we might not go through again. I wondered if she had the strength to pull my 190 pounds out onto the ice.

She risked both of us going through again with my added weight. Within moments, we were skating to shore to safety.

She had her skates off quickly while I was fumbling to get mine off. Our phones were destroyed in our pockets during the immersion. When I got to the car, she was calling for rescue on my E.M.S. radio, which I had luckily left in the car. I asked her if she could make the one minute, two minute drive to the Medical Center safely. She said, "Yes" and I called dispatch and told them we did not need help.

Upon arriving at the clinic, Hope went into the trauma room, where she took off her wet clothes. Nurse Practitioner Liz Dyer got her into a hot shower and then blankets. She had lacerations all over her hands and fingers from the ice. It was amazing that she was able to get out and pull me out with frigid, ungloved hands.

I went home and pulled off layers of wet clothes and put on dry ones. Immediately, I started to shiver uncontrollably. I put on several layers of blankets but was still shaking badly. I wondered how long it would take to get warm. There was a knock on the door and it was Nurse Linda Closter. She walked me to the clinic and put me in a hot shower. In about 10 minutes, I was okay. She took my vitals and told me everything was good.

I went home and Hope was there. I told her, "You saved my life.” I think she said, "At least we are both okay.”

A couple days later, I went to the pond again. From the shore, I could see the huge hole we had broken, which had iced over. I took a few pictures. It was about 75 feet from shore. The shore I was trying to get to had 75 feet of brush and prickers before the road. We would not have been able to get through that and then another 75 feet on the road to the car. Possibly, we could have paralleled the shore to where the car was in the road but only if the ice was strong enough.

The hockey stick was the key component to my rescue. The extra five feet between us spanned by the stick displaced our weight enough so we both did not go through again.

Hope was indeed a lifesaver. She kept calm and did not panic and was able to propel her body by kicking onto the ice just as in the ice-rescue video she had seen. She told me that I did not look too good in the water as I had wasted valuable energy continually breaking ice.

Hope has always shown profound maturity even from a young age. I remember us kayaking from Jamestown to Rose Island when she was six. She insisted on paddling the whole way.

When she was young, I put a Bible verse on her bedroom door from Romans 5: "And Hope does not disappoint us." This has been true her entire life. 

During these times of shorter and warmer winters, it is tempting to try to get some skating in before the ice melts or snow falls on it.

This causes people, including me, to try to skate too early. The following rules should be observed. Do not skate alone. Have an experienced skater test ice thickness with an ice auger in multiple areas (for large groups, ice should be six inches thick). Have a non-skater on shore watching with a phone. The following equipment is best to have in the event of rescue: Ladder, sled, rope, small boat, boards or plywood, long pole, blankets. Skaters could wear life preservers, as well. Maybe a loud rescue whistle. These items could be gathered at a place where groups are expected to skate multiple times. Many households already have these items.

I do not consider myself reckless, as I have probably skated several hundred times over the last 60 years. However, it only takes one mistake to perish. Smaller, shallower ponds freeze quicker and better. However, it is possible to freeze to death fairly quickly in shallow water, especially if you get stuck in mud. Be safe and careful. Skating is fun and great exercise.