SANTA CLARA — Prone on the fragile ice of Upper Saranac Lake, Aaron Hyatt managed to get a rope around one of the men in the water, but the other angler was losing the battle to stay afloat.
“He was yelling, ‘I can’t make it any more,’” Hyatt said. “And he went under. I was screaming to him, ‘I’m not going to let this happen!’
“You could hear the rescue crews launching the hovercraft; You could tell they were coming, but we couldn’t see them.”
Hyatt and Jim Yoder, two camp caretakers, had been working near the water’s edge Wednesday afternoon, watching warily as two ice fishermen put lines through the still-frozen surface of Green Bay, a cove in the lake’s northern end.
“They were out there Monday for half a day, and yesterday, they were out there in the morning,” Hyatt said in an interview Thursday.
“I’m a lifelong fisherman — I’ve been watching the ice shrink daily and generally deteriorate and turning dark,” he said.
“They were about 75 yards out, near the edge of the ice. The water is very deep there. The shelf drops from 15 feet to about 40 feet deep.”
Yoder, 50, was the first to hear the two men screaming for help.
“Jimmy came up to me and said, ‘They fell through, they fell through,’” Hyatt said.
“I grabbed a rope, which we had at camp, and started running.
“And I told Jimmy to grab two life jackets. We ran along the shoreline. From training in wilderness first aid, I knew we shouldn’t create more of a risk by jumping in the water.
Leo Fisher, 46, and Robert Duntley, 74, were in the water, trying to grab the icy edge and gain purchase.
“We tied the rope around a small tree that was on the shoreline and threw it, but it wasn’t quite making it to them,” Hyatt said.
“The older gentleman couldn’t get his hands on the ice.
“I started yelling, ‘We’re here, we’re gonna get you out.’”
Hyatt donned a life jacket then carefully started moving along the ice shelf toward the two men.
“I spread my body weight out on the ice. I still broke through,” he said.
After Fisher was secured by the rope, Yoder began pulling him to safety. That was when Duntley went under.
“What I did was, I handed him the life jacket, and he put it under his arm the best he could. That, at least, kept his head above water,” Hyatt said.
“But he was losing consciousness. I knew that was it; I grabbed a hold of him.”
Fisher was safe, so Yoder tossed the rope to Hyatt.
“I wrapped it around my right arm and held the older gentleman by his shirt collar with the other, and Jimmy was pulling us out with the rope,” Hyatt said.
“We were actually breaking ice as he was pulling us in, as opposed to pulling us up onto the ice.”
Finally, after more than 15 minutes in the water, Duntley, too, was hauled up onto an ice shelf along the shore, where shade from some hemlocks had retarded melting.
“The older gentleman was beyond shaking. He wasn’t even shaking,” Hyatt said of the hypothermia that started to set in.
“The first thing I did was give him my hat. My head was dry. Then we tried to get some clothes off and just kept talking to him. He (Duntley) said ‘I have a bad heart,’ and, ‘I’m not gonna make it.’
Hyatt could hear the hovercraft approaching, and rescue crews and the Department of Environmental Conservation arrived soon thereafter.
“It was maybe 10 minutes waiting for the rescue personnel to get to us.”
‘GLAD TO BE WARM’
The call for rescue had come in to the State DEC’s dispatch center in Ray Brook at about 2:05 p.m. Wednesday.
DEC forest rangers Scott VanLaer and Lt. Julie Harjung, the Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad, the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department with its hovercraft and State Police responded.
They arrived to find the men on the ice near shore; Fire Chief Brendan Keough said the ambulances had to wait some distance away, as the spot was reached across private land with a number of gates blocking the way.
Sixteen volunteers turned out for the rescue, he said.
Fisher and Hyatt walked out; responders carried Duntley in a Stokes basket.
All three men were wrapped in hypothermic bags, DEC spokesman Dave Winchell said via email, and were taken by ambulance to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake.
After his discharge, Hyatt stopped to visit with Duntley and Fisher.
“I wanted to see them before I left. The older man was very tired, and you could tell they were just glad to be in the hospital and glad to be warm.”
Hospital spokesman Joe Riccio said all three were treated then released from AMC.
As for the heroic rescue effort he shared with Yoder, Hyatt said it was just instinct.
“We’re kind of remote — 15 miles from town, so seconds count out here,” he said. “... I couldn’t watch him just go under.”
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