River Emergencies

By: Richard L. Withington

Volume 15, Issue 2, February 2020

Already in 2020

For those of you who read Thousand Islands Life monthly, it should be noted that I missed my usual article in December, in which I report on some of the activities of the Clayton Fire Department during the past summer. We all see our fireboat, the Last Chance, resting quietly at the pier, and it is easy to assume that it rarely leaves the dock. Our December articles are intended to bring to your attention the fact that the boat does see rather heavy use during the summer months, sometimes while others are sleeping. Clearly, this report will be a little different.

This morning shortly after 8 AM, the Clayton Fire Department was dispatched for a water rescue. Today is January 18th, and Last Chance is snugly in her winter quarters, but that does not mean that we are totally out of business. Our assistance was being requested in the area of Kring Point, where an airboat had broken through ice and overturned. The operator was in the water. Responding units included the Alex Bay Fire Department and the US Coast Guard.

Boat Rescue After Man Flips Ice Boat Over In Alexandria Bay, NY – Video Footage
Our thanks to photographer "Johnny Trusdell" for sharing his video.

Fortunately, our airboat and an operator were readily available. They launched the rescue airboat from its trailer and were able to reach the scene and bring the victim promptly ashore. My understanding is that he was very cold, but otherwise, uninjured. We are indebted to the River community that supports the need for sophisticated equipment, which is only used occasionally, but is critically important to the welfare of the River - its residents and visiting mariners alike.

Yes, a difficult start to the new year.

Written by Ben Muir, Watertown Daily Times, NNY 360

Now about 2019

2019 will be remembered for the prolonged flooding in the spring that lasted well into summer. The high water necessitated building tops on docks, repairing seawalls, and getting boats launched to open the cottages on islands. Round Island has about 50 homes, and at one time there were only five docks that were usable. Debris floated down the River, from who knows where, and some boats stored in boathouses, could not be launched until the water went down enough to let them get under the header on the boathouse door. Electrical systems on docks and in boathouses were of concern, because of the danger of electrocution during the activation of the water pumps for the cottages. Fortunately, everyone was either lucky or careful.

High Water is a concern as electrical systems on docks and in boathouses can be a danger of electrocution 

Testing the water for stray currents became more widely a concern before swimming. An interesting event occurred early in the season that was related to the high water and swift currents. I was awakened by a radio report of a small boat adrift below the Thousand Islands Bridge. I checked the Marine Traffic App and saw that there was a freighter upbound near Deer Island, off Alexandria Bay. I headed downriver and located the boat in mid-channel, near Point Vivian. It was a small fishing boat, and appeared to be unoccupied. I contacted the Coast Guard, and they came to investigate. I was able to get the boat over near the shore and called the freighter to let them know that the way was clear as they came around the corner at Comfort Island. The Coast Guard was able to locate the owner, and I towed the boat to Chalk's Gas Dock, as the sun came up. As it turned out, we probably averted a collision and saved a lot of paperwork for someone. All's well that ends well!

Then Last Chance went to Rockport for the annual Joint Forces training, for maritime emergencies. The training was stimulating with live fire scenarios, and live victims in the water. The rescues were challenging because of high water and currents. We utilized heaving lines and coordination between the captain and the crew on the swim platform. We rescued several volunteer victims from the River, and also put out an island fire. There were 19 emergency vessels at the training. Ironically, a few weeks after the training, there was a major fire at the marina we had visited.

Unfortunately, there were two deaths on Round Island during the summer. Last Chance participated in the evacuation and transport in both cases, and both involved difficult extrication because of the high ledges along the north shore. Opposite circumstances led to a call to Grindstone Island. A gentleman about my age had had difficulty getting into his boat at the marina, due to unknown medical issues. The marina staff assisted him in and the couple proceeded home to Grindstone. Upon arriving his condition had not improved and 911 was called to summon assistance getting him out of the boat. It all seems easy, but it takes cooperation, balance, strength, and a little courage on the part of the victim, to get out onto the dock. I don't recall if he was transported for medical evaluation.

Our most common calls are for medical emergencies, but we still do fires too. A fire on the north side of Murray Island sent us hustling only to find that a pole was on fire, and wires were down. Putting the fire out requires waiting for the utility company to shut off the power. In the meantime, one of the occupants of the near-by cottage had medical problems that would have been an issue if the house had to be evacuated. Plans were made for that possibility, but it was not necessary.

The next day there appeared to be heavy smoke from the same area, and we assumed a re-kindle. While underway, the tones alerted us to a boat fire at the Wellesley Island State Park. Wellesley Island Fire Department responded with trucks and manpower. I was already underway, so I continued in case there was a need to move boats in the marina. By the time I got there the boat had drifted away from the docks, but had grounded on a near-by shoal and the adjacent woods was afire. Alex Bay fireboat arrived and extinguished that fire. We then assisted the State Police in retrieving the burned-out hulk and securing it for evidence. I later was told that the boat had been involved in some illegal activities, and the occupants had been apprehended.

We assisted the State Police in retrieving the burned-out hulk and securing it for evidence. I later was told that the boat had been involved in some illegal activities.

The discovery of a boat in which the sole occupant was deceased, presented some unanticipated challenges. Whom do you call??

When it is apparent that there is nothing that can be done from a medical standpoint, then you have to consider the legalities of the situation. What we learned was that if the boat is underway, and making way, you call the Coast Guard. If it is at anchor or aground, it is the State Police who have jurisdiction. Then there is the issue of preservation of evidence, protecting a potential crime scene, and negotiating with the Medical Examiner's office. It made for a challenging afternoon for the boat crew, but ultimately, everything was done properly, and the situation was resolved. ....but that was a new set of circumstances for us, and a real learning experience.

There were other calls during the summer and fall, and Last Chance performed very well. I know that I speak for many of the islanders when I say that I rest better knowing that the Clayton Volunteer Fire Department and Thousand Islands Emergency Rescue Service (TIERS) are available when help is needed. They could not exist without the vigorous support of the River community - for that I thank you. Now let's hope for a great summer in 2020!

By Richard L. Withington, MD,  January 2020

Dr. Richard (Dick) L. Withington is a retired Orthopedic Surgeon and is best known on the River for his rescue work, with his boat “Stormy.”   Each winter Dr. W. writes articles that provide his special view of the Thousand Islands – and we thank him for this.
His first article for TI Life, A Winter Islander, was published in January 2009.  To see all of his island experiences, search TI Life under Richard L. Withington. Also be sure to see The Doctor is in, February 2012, written by Kim Lunman, writer and publisher of Island Life, a print magazine.

Posted in: Volume 15, Issue 2, February 2020, News article, Sports

Please click here if you are unable to post your comment.

Submit an Article

Do you have an article you would like to submit? Click here to participate.