TICONDEROGA — Steve Stubing found the overturned tractor-trailer mostly submerged in Eagle Lake; noise from the cab told him someone was trapped inside.

A loud crash and blasting truck horn had drawn the off-duty State Department of Environmental Conservation officer from sleep, then from his summer camp at about 1 a.m. Tuesday. Flashlight and cellphone in hand, he set out on the lake in his boat, thinking there’d been an accident of some kind. 

The man trapped inside the truck cab was almost completely under water.

“(Stubing) attempted to open the cab doors, but they were badly damaged and would not open,” said DEC spokesperson David Winchell in an email to the Press-Republican.

So he phoned for help and stayed with the man, trying to calm him.

HARROWING RESCUE

Ticonderoga Police rushed to the spot, quickly joined by firefighters from Chilson Volunteer Fire Department and Ticonderoga Volunteer Fire Department as mutual aid.

Later Tuesday, Ti Fire Chief Jeff Burns recounted a harrowing and delicate rescue.

“The tractor-trailer was upside-down in the water, the whole unit,” he said.

“Water where the trailer was is about 15 feet deep, but it was held on site by the angle of the bank and some rocks. The cab was in about 8 feet of water. The trailer was fully loaded; it holds about 80,000 pounds.”

SMALL AIR POCKET

Inside the overturned cab, truck driver Michael J. Rodriguez, 40, from Broadalbin in Fulton County, was completely submerged but for a small pocket of air.

“Only his chin and nose were above water,” Burns said.

And that narrow space closed in as the truck continued to shift deeper into Eagle Lake.

“That’s why it was so important that we got him out quickly. The truck slid 2 feet deeper into the lake during the extrication process,” he said.

Three firefighters deployed Ticonderoga’s rescue boat, and five men entered the water at the lake’s edge to rescue Rodriguez, Burns said. 

One of them was Matthew Watts, an emergency medical technician and Ticonderoga’s assistant fire chief.

“We couldn’t see him at first, between it being dark and the cab being 90 percent submerged,” Watts said.

But as they began to carefully plan the extrication, they could hear him.

Rodriguez had managed to remove his seat belt after the crash and slide into a spot under the passenger-side seat where there was some air. 

CUT OUT SEAT

The roof of the cab was crushed.

“We cut a hole in the door and could talk to him. Then the truck shifted on us, and we had to re-stabilize it. We took the door off and then had to cut the passenger’s-side seat out. Between where the truck roof was crushed and the bottom of the seat, there was an opening where we could see him. 

“Then we were able to cut that seat bracket out, which gave Kyle Stonitsch and I enough room to pull him out.”

Stonitsch is Ti Fire Department second lieutenant.

The extrication process took between 35 and 40 minutes, Burns said.

“That part of the submerged cab (where the driver was trapped) was the highest point above water,” he added. 

“If he had not unbuckled himself and gotten to the passenger side, he likely would not have made it.”

TRUCK WAS SLIDING

Watts said the rescue was, by far, one of the more difficult and dangerous extrications their fire crews have ever achieved.

“And I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. 

“The lake water was cold, wet, slimy — there was some diesel fuel and hydraulic oil in there. But the driver was very grateful. He was pretty nervous in the truck, which I could understand.”

The trailer behind the cab slid down the lake’s bank and stopped, partially submerged, in about 15 feet of water.

The wreck had to be stabilized to allow extrication.

“Because it was sliding so often, we had to hook a winch-line to one of the fire-engine cabs to keep it from sliding. The trailer was still behind it,” Ti’s fire chief said of the coordinated effort on land.

UNDERWATER EFFORT

Rescue began close to 2 a.m. — in the dark. 

“We used lights on the apparatus and on Chilson’s apparatus,” Burns said.

Some 12 firefighters from both companies helped.

“We usually don’t practice with the jaws of life in water,” he added. “This is a first, I believe. The guy was very happy to be out of that truck.”

“Chilson and Ti did a good job. I can honestly say they saved that man’s life,” Ticonderoga’s police chief said.

“It was everybody. I think we did save a life,” said Watts, who is also deputy emergency services coordinator for Essex County. “It’s a good feeling for sure.”

Ticonderoga Police Chief Mark Johns said the trailer was fully loaded, hauling 27 rolls of paper from International Paper westbound on Route 74. 

It overturned on the causeway on a sharp curve.

LEG INJURIES

“Mr. Rodriguez was extricated and transported to Moses-Ludington Hospital (by Ticonderoga Ambulance Squad), then to Albany Medical Center for leg injuries and fluid in the lungs,” Johns said.

“A preliminary investigation indicates the cause of the crash to be speed excessive for a curve in the road. He struck guide rails before overturning into the lake. Tow crews on scene began working to offload the fuel, then unload the paper before removing the vehicle. 

That process was still ongoing in late afternoon; police expected the box of the truck wouldn’t be hauled out of the water until Wednesday sometime. The eastbound lane of Route 74 remained open but the westbound was partially closed. 

Stubing also took charge of containing the gas spilled in the crash until the DEC Spill Response Team arrived.

“He placed a containment boom around the truck and did not allow the removal of the truck from the water until the saddle tanks were drained,” Winchell said.

Rodriguez was driving the truck for his employer, Logistics One, a distribution company based in Saratoga Springs, Johns said.

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com

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