Two years ago, December 2016, I wrote a Book Review: for First Responder, by Dr. Richard Withington. I related that when this Editor was asked to take over TI Life in 2008, it was suggested that Dick Withington’s annual letter to his neighbors on Round Island was interesting and should be included in TI Life. “Oh No,” I said, “it is just news, no history, not what I had in mind for the December issue.” But, I went ahead and asked Doc Withington, if I could publish the 2008 newsletter “A Winter Islander…” What a good move. He is one of our most popular columnists, writing more than 20 articles, and one that our readers look forward to each December. This year is no exception.
However, you don’t have to wait a year for more excitement… you can almost sit beside him as he jumps into his boat, “Stormy,” and heads out to one of dozens of accidents – and learn first-hand how important our life saving partners, the Clayton and Gananoque Fire Departments, the Coast Guard and the Thousand Islands Emergency Rescue Service (TIERS) are to our Thousand Islands. How can you do that? Dick Withington is the author of a simple spiral-bound book: “First Responder” published in 2016.
And now, we present this year’s Withington Review… Fires, Groundings… etc.
The Withington 2018 Review:
Actually, this year got off to a flying start with the unfortunate grounding of the Pacific Huron near Twin Island. This occurred just as the 2017 season was closing. The St. Lawrence Seaway was extending the closing date to accommodate the last ships trying to clear the River at the end of the year. The ship apparently had a steering problem and grounded near Twin Island and was then overtaken by unusually cold weather. Local contractors assisted, but the re-floating was delayed awaiting the arrival of powerful tractor tugs. The weather continued to hamper the situation and led to the freezing of the ship in a lock at Massena.
Extrication took several days and was reported to have cost nearly a million dollars, just to get the ship through the locks. Unfortunately, a brand-new US Navy ship on her delivery cruise to her homeport in Florida became entrapped also. She spent the rest of the winter moored in Montreal with bubblers or "ice-eaters" to prevent damage to her aluminum hull. Uncooperative weather can cause major, unexpected expenses for a delivery cruise.
April was characterized by wintry weather. We had an abundance of snow and ice which made clearing the winter tree fallings on the island a challenge. There was some storm damage to a cottage that had a large pine tree hit the roof, but it was quickly repaired by local contractors.
The first boating incident of the season was a dispatch for "boat taking on water near the foot of Round Island; two people with life jackets in the water and trying to swim to shore." The water is very cold at that point and makes this a real urgent event. Two boats operated by Clayton Fire Department members responded quickly from Round Island. The two men were assisted from the water and transported to the care of TIERS and fire units on the shore. The boat was salvaged by contractors. I am told that a plank had come loose in the bottom. Only the tip of the bow, with the club burgee flying bravely, could be seen when we arrived. It was a close call for all concerned.
Back on the Island, a serious heart condition was noted by the responders, and arrangements were made for a quick evacuation to Syracuse by helicopter. Clayton fire boat, Last Chance, and TIERS, and Life-Net helicopter made it all happen quickly, and the victim survived.
Another call was to a small island north of Grindstone Island for a serious shoulder injury. Clayton Fire Department and TIERS combined to provide extrication and transport to the hospital for treatment.
An early season trip for a large cruiser was interrupted by an apparent collision with a "deadhead" that put a large hole in the bow of the boat. They managed to get to the Municipal Marina near the Harbor Hotel. Once there, responders were able to put pumps aboard and plug the hole enough to partially de-water the boat and then salvage services towed it to be hauled out on the travel lift at St. Lawrence Restoration.
Two other boating incidents occurred in the same area. The first was a small cruiser that struck the head of Washington Island. There were several people aboard and extrication involved securing the boat to the island rock so that it would not slip back into the River. Then the victims were taken off onto the fireboat and transported to shore. The injuries did not appear serious at the scene. Salvagers then removed the boat to St. Lawrence Restoration for haul-out. There was extensive damage to the hull and the drive units.
The next day there was a call for a disabled boat near buoy #1, off Frink Pier. One person was reported in the water. A near-by boater was able to get a line aboard and take the vessel in tow. The man in the water was the captain and he climbed back aboard once they were under way to the Marina. They were escorted by CFD vessels until secure at the marina.
After a fairly quiet summer, Labor Day weekend was an explosion of activity. The fire department received 22 dispatches in 9 days. That is extraordinary for a volunteer department. The major event was initiated when a VHF radio call to the USCG was monitored. The caller was on a sailboat anchored in Canada, and he was reporting a burning building on Grindstone Island, across from Camelot and Endymion Islands (part of the 1000 Islands National Park). The structure was fully-involved and a total loss. Clayton FD was assisted at the scene by fireboats from Gananoque, Wellesley Island, and Alexandria Bay. Two commercial salvage boats also assisted at the scene. There were no injuries.
A few days later there was a cottage/garage fire at St. Lawrence Park. The fireboat assisted at a re-kindle.
A very early morning alarm sent us to the French Creek Bridge east of Clayton, where a truck had left the road and was in the River, apparently with people still inside. A quick response by Clayton FD and TIERS assisted the driver and his rescuer from the water. Recovering the pick-up truck from under the bridge took until nearly daylight. Commercial salvage groups cooperated to retrieve the truck.
Finally, we were dispatched to rescue a lost hunter in the French Creek swamp. He had been lost since the prior day, and forty-degree temperatures had been experienced during the night. His cell phone battery was week, and ammunition was limited. An attempt to reach him by ATV was unsuccessful. A prolonged effort to get to him by FD's aluminum rowboat was complicated by the shallow water. We were contemplating trying to get to him with the airboat, but were informed by police that a State Police helicopter was enroute from Massena to assist. After a long and difficult struggle with frogging poles and shallow water, we were very near him when the helicopter arrived, landed in the marsh, and then flew him to safety. We spent part of the rest of the afternoon trying to find a place where the FD could get close enough to the creek to recover the boat,....and us. It was a long, hard day, but the result was a successful rescue, so we were all happy.
Clearly, this is not a complete compilation of all the FD activities of the season, but it is intended to represent some of the more interesting events and to enhance the community's awareness of the importance of the fireboat and the associated equipment and personnel to our summer community and visitors.
By Richard L Withington, MD, Round Island, December 2018
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.