September 25, 2013

Local man reminisces about car sinking in '62


VALCOUR — Bob Santor was a young man when he and his dad, Leeward Santor, nearly perished on Lake Champlain during the winter of 1962.

The two anglers just finished a day of ice fishing near Valcour Island. It was a warm day, Bob remembers of that March afternoon. Pockets of water lay atop the ice cover, but the Santors were seasoned veterans and felt safe in the old Model A Ford they always used for their excursions on the ice.

“We’d been all the way around the island,” Bob said recently as he recalled the events that could have cost him and his father their lives that day.

“There was no snow on the ice, but there were spots of water here and there.”

They were used to those puddles, remnants of the melting snow cover, but they knew the ice was still several inches thick below the surface water.

“We went through a pond of water (near the southern tip of Valcour Island), and there must have been a crack (in the ice) because we broke through, and the car went straight down headfirst to the bottom.”

The Model A was used exclusively for ice fishing; in fact, the Santors parked the vehicle on the ice near the current location of Peru Dock when they finished fishing each day. The vehicle no longer had a back seat, and there was no rear window, so it filled with lake water the instant it broke through.

“It all happened just like that,” Bob said. “There was no way to get out of the car until we hit bottom.”

Fortunately, the car landed on solid ground about 20 feet below the surface, and the two men were able to exit the vehicle and swim to the surface once it had come to rest.

The hole they had fallen through was a shade lighter than the surrounding ice, and they were able to swim to and break above the surface for a much-needed breath of air.

“There were other folks out there fishing who came to help us,” Bob said. “I got up out of the ice by myself, but my father couldn’t get out. Someone reached him with an ice chisel and helped pull him out.”

The two soaked men then headed toward shore, but another angler was also on the ice with a car and gave the Santors a ride to shore, ending their brush with death.

“I never knew who that man was,” Bob said of the angler who gave them a ride. “I met the man about 10 years ago. I didn’t know who he was, but he knew me. He said to me, ‘I’m the guy who gave you a ride home that day you broke through the ice.’ I still don’t know his name.”

Spring came quickly, and the Santors were unable to safely return to the site to try and raise the sunken car, which has since become a popular spot for scuba divers.

Roger Harwood, past president of the Clinton County Historical Association and an avid researcher of Valcour Island history, was diving off the southern tip of Valcour with a nephew several years ago when he came across the skeleton of the automobile as it sat on a ledge just above him. 

“It’s pretty murky there,” Harwood said of the underwater location, “but there are no weeds. The south wind coming through keeps the area pretty clean (of vegetation).”

Harwood had no idea about the history of the vehicle, but as he swam around the wreck, he noticed a radiator cap lying on the lake bottom and picked it up. He placed the cap on a windowsill at home, and it had remained there as a memento of the sunken mystery.

Until recently.

“Bob showed up at the lighthouse (on Valcour Island) earlier this summer,” Harwood said as he and Bob sat on the porch of Harwood’s home overlooking the channel between Valcour and the mainland.

Bob was looking at a map of Valcour on display in the lighthouse and pointed to a spot where the car had gone through the ice.

With the mystery of the Model A solved, Harwood retrieved the radiator cap and presented it to its original owner.

Local divers Scott and Tracey Waite had also been diving at the site recently and had taken some video of the sunken vehicle, though it is now completely covered by zebra mussels. Harwood also presented Bob with some electronic copies of the vehicle, which Bob accepted with enthusiastic appreciation.

In addition, Bob helped local farmer John Manley ferry cows out to the island on a small barge, and he helped raise the gunboat Philadelphia in 1935. The gunboat was part of Benedict Arnold’s fleet and was sunk by the British during the Battle of Valcour, a significant battle during the Revolutionary War. 

It was a horrific few moments when Bob and his father sank to the depths of a frigid Lake Champlain, but Bob can now look back at it thankful that they had not fallen through in a nearby spot where the lake bottom drops to 60 feet or more.

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