Heroes on Lake George

Heroes on Lake George

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

Heroes on Lake George

Courage is the first of human qualities, because it is the quality which guarantees all others.

Winston Churchill

I stood on the shores of Lake George, a sparkling thirty-two-mile body of water in the heart of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The sky was clear and blue, the lake a sheet of glass reflecting the red and yellow foliage of the surrounding hillside. I came to visit this lake often, and it was always special. On blistering summer days, the waters cooled me. On crisp autumn afternoons, its serene calmness lulled me with a feeling of security. Yet a year ago, this lake was anything but serene. And, as I lost myself in the reflection of the lake I loved so much, I wondered how to make sense of it.

In summer Lake George is a bustling resort town, but when the cooler weather arrives, the little village is quiet and still. Only a few boats splash across the expansive waters. Last October, the Ethan Allen slowly chugged along the shoreline.

The Ethan Allen was a simple forty-foot open-sided white fiberglass vessel with dark green trim and a modest canopy. Forty-eight passengers, mostly senior citizens, sat on rough wooden benches, wrapped in their sweaters and long pants, cameras slung over their shoulders, excited about their leaf-peeping tour.

The water was calm. It couldn’t have been a more picture-perfect day. There was nothing to warn of the impending danger, but suddenly the unthinkable happened. As the boat began to make a gradual turn in a cove near Cramer’s Point, one side dipped lower into the water and the green hull began to rise. Something was wrong! Panicked passengers slid across the boat, falling into one another’s laps. Then, just like that, the boat flipped. People were thrown over the sides and tossed out the windows into the frigid water. Weighted down by their fall clothing and wearing no lifejackets, they struggled to stay afloat.

In seconds, the peace of the idyllic little lake was shattered. Clouds of black smoke billowed from the sinking boat as the acrid smell of diesel fuel spread across the water. Desperate cries for help pierced the autumn air. At first, it seemed only a few people were around to respond; most of the vacationers had gone home. But Lake George wasn’t as sleepy as it appeared.

Residents clustered nearby, perhaps out of sight but nonetheless alert. At home, at work, or just out enjoying the last rays of sunshine, they heard the cries for help. Moments later, ordinary citizens were thrust into the startling role of rescuers.

Joyce Cloutier and her husband, Larry Steinhart, were out for a boat ride and had just passed the Ethan Allen when they witnessed the capsizing. Joyce frantically called 911 on her cell while Larry tossed over life jackets, then lowered the craft’s swimming platform. The husband-and-wife team pulled survivors aboard. “You’re okay now,” Joyce soothed.

Brian Hart was also passing nearby, taking his daughter and nieces for an afternoon canoe ride. He stared in shock at what he was witnessing. Knowing that he couldn’t be much help with only a small canoe, he called his brother Eric, who sped to the rescue with a larger boat. They tossed out anything that could float, then dove into the icy water and pulled victims to safety.

On shore, others heard the cries for help. Gisella Root and her husband ran a nearby hotel and noticed the commotion. They jumped into their speedboat and rushed to the scene. The two dove into the water and pulled eight people onto their boat. A local jewelry shop owner and his wife dashed to their boat and rescued six more people.

Nearby, a local scuba class was underway. No better time to use their new skills. The students hurriedly swam to the Ethan Allen and plunged underwater to search the sunken boat for victims.

A triage area was formed on the shore. The shivering, frightened seniors were given warm blankets and emergency first aid, then rushed to nearby hospitals. All together, twenty-seven passengers and the captain survived. Of course, I knew the horrible truth. Not everyone was as lucky.

So a year later, I stood on the shore and kicked at the pebbles. I knew that a beautiful autumn day could be deceiving, that innocent, pleasant afternoon boat rides could result in catastrophic tragedies. I frowned and wondered why. How could such a horrible accident happen? As I struggled with that question, I finally accepted that there was no making sense of it. Sometimes, horrible things happen. But there was something hopeful to hold on to. When something bad happens, good people are everywhere, people like Brian and Joyce and the others, people who risk their lives for strangers.

And one brisk autumn day on a peaceful mountain lake, they became heroes.

Peggy Frezon

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