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“Last Chance”… Review

As we approach the holiday season it is appropriate to reflect on our circumstances that might otherwise be taken for granted. 

Almost ten years ago, an elderly gentleman on Grindstone island sat me down and challenged me to do something for the St. Lawrence region. He said, “Doc, you guys need a new fireboat, and it will never happen if someone doesn’t take the first step. So here it is.” He gave me a check and asserted that it must be used for the new boat. There were discussions at the fire department, and what looked to me like an impossible journey, was started.

The first $1,000 check came from Canada. Our friends to the north clearly recognized the value of the project and wanted to be a part of it. Driven by this enthusiasm, several benefit events changed the “impossible” to a major, but achievable, undertaking. Now years later, we are overdue in our obligation to render an accounting of the project and to show just how much we appreciated all the help and support that led to our present status. Most people see the fireboat sitting idly at the dock awaiting a call. Occasionally, it is seen in training or public relations activities. My hope in this article is to chronicle some of the activities that demonstrate its usefulness and capabilities. It has truly contributed to the well-being of our community and many people in the Thousand Islands area.

Without being too scholarly about it, I will relate a select few events that attest to the value of our boat. These are not in any order and are largely supported by my aging memory.

Let’s start with this past summer of 2012. The first major event of this year occurred in March, when a large tug caught fire in Lake Ontario. Initial reports from the scene indicated that the Canadian Coast Guard and the Rescue Coordination Center in Trenton, had successfully evacuated the crew of 6, including one with serious injuries. The fire was reported to be extinguished.

The Clayton fireboat, Last Chance, was offered in assistance, but was felt to be more valuable in a “stand by” mode. Later, as the smoldering hulk approached Clayton under tow, the fireboat was activated as escort and precaution against recurrent flare-ups. It was felt that Clayton was the only destination in the area with the equipment, manpower, and experience to manage this wreck. It arrived with a super-hot hull containing toxic gases, and 60,000 gallons of combustible fuel. With the assistance of the fire department and the marine community, the tug was rendered safe without any further damage and with no additional injuries. ….And that was just the start of our first summer as a designated Part 105 Port.

One of the requirements of the Port designation is that we be able to manage a waterfront fire. It is almost ironic that we had three waterfront fires, and they were managed so well that they received little notice. One was a boat fire at the floating town docks near Frink Park. There were many boats at the docks and visitors in the Park. Prompt attention by shoreside responders quickly extinguished the fire without damage except to the involved boat. Two other fires involved waterfront. Again, quick action by shoreside responders as well as the fireboat confined the damages to the exteriors of the buildings. Damage was limited, and there were no injuries. Luck is clearly an important factor, but so too is the presence of alert, trained, responders who acted appropriately and decisively.

Two of this summer’s calls were for fires north of Grindstone Island. In both cases the Canadian fire departments had the situations well in hand, but they appreciated our support and the concept of “mutual aid” was tested and found to be healthy. The camaraderie that exists among the neighboring departments strengthens the effectiveness of the entire protection system. 

Other summer calls included a search for two girls on a small sailboat in high winds, a person thrown from a small boat when he hit a shoal in dense fog, an illegal trash fire out of control, a camper with a seizure, and assorted minor injuries.

Mutual aid calls outside the Town of Clayton included a nighttime trip to Alexandria Bay to assist in a search for a missing swimmer, evacuation of a lady with a broken arm from Susan Island, and three trips to Carlton Island; two for outdoor fires, and one 3AM trip for a cardiac arrest.

The most dramatic call came from the sail training ship, Fair Jeanne, about three years ago. They had an engine-room fire that they could not extinguish, and they had a crew of young cadets aboard in additional to the professional crew. The Canadian Coast Guard had rescued the cadets before we arrived, and the fire was managed by Clayton interior-firefighters. The vessel survived the ordeal, was repaired, and has visited Clayton often. 

We have visited both Grenadier Islands; the Canadian for a stubborn swamp fire that was otherwise inaccessible, and the American Grenadier for two body recoveries. The first was tragic, but successful. The second was remarkable in that the body was not yet dead. The details of just what happened here are still speculative as far as I know. However, I do know that there is a beautiful young lady alive and well today due to the alert and vigorous efforts of the fireboat crew. She was found far out in Lake Ontario, and it is most likely that her life was saved by the Last Chance crew.

While we think of Last Chance as a fireboat, rescue is its more frequent and more valued activity. Just as there is a huge difference between a boat fire and a barn fire, so too, is the difference between a boating accident and a car accident. We have all seen the news coverage of car accidents. In a matter of minutes emergency vehicles arrive, police block off the area, a triage area is set up, a fire truck brings the hydraulic extrication tool, the top is peeled back, the victim is placed on a spine board and the helicopter swoops in and whisks him off to a major trauma center. 

Accomplishing the same end on the water is a little different. The location may be unknown and/or inaccessible, there is no stable ground to stand on or set up your triage area, hydraulic tools are not available and that is probably just as well, everything you stand on is either uneven, slippery, wet, or sinking. Your greatest reassurance is knowing that you will not be hit by a passing snowplow. (Did I mention the risk of fire and explosion?) Managing such an event is not something you learn in a book. It requires knowledge beyond first aid, experience beyond a safe driving course, maturity and ingenuity. I have seen our fire/rescue services work together as a big team up and down the river in these situations. I feel that I can speak for all of them in saying that we appreciate the support of the River people who provide our training and equipment. As long as the ospreys keep building nests on transformer poles, there will be a need for our services. I hope you will see this limited report of our activities as an expression of our appreciation for your support.

By way of follow-up, the older gentleman, and a few others whose enthusiasm for the project seemed boundless, lived to see the boat tied at their docks, and benefitted from the services it provides. We all feel a little more secure for having it available.

By Dr. Richard L. Withington, Round Island

Dr. Richard Withington is a retired Orthopedic Surgeon, living out a childhood dream spending his winters alone at the head of Round  Island. The Withingtons close their cottage known as  "Rivercroft" in October and Dick moves into the former servants' quarters, "Wintercroft".  His boat, also called Stormy is ready for action, no matter the weather.   The Sheriff's office will call him directly if and when there is a problem.  This is his second article written for TI Life his issue.  


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Comment by: Mike
Left at: 4:38 PM Monday, December 17, 2012
Richard, very nice article; the fire crews are much deserving of thanks for what they do. I wrote a small post on my site as a reminder of the annual recognition paid to them and fire prevention efforts ( Would love to see more articles on the working boats of the St Lawrence!