Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Amazing River Rescue

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Amazing River Rescue

Article excerpt

PATERSON -- City firefighters, plunging into the freezing waters of the Passaic River, rescued two teenagers who had broken through the ice and were screaming for help Tuesday afternoon, as they desperately resisted currents that threatened to pull them to their deaths, authorities said.

The first firefighter at the scene, 52-year-old Battalion Chief Brian Rathbone, said the urgency of the situation was such that he decided to head out onto the ice-covered river before the rest of his rescue team arrived and without taking time to put on a wetsuit - - "They could barely move, they were hypothermic," he said. "They didn't have long. It was too urgent."

"Their lives were definitely in jeopardy," said Deputy Fire Chief Brian McDermott, who, like Rathbone, ended up in the river during the frantic rescue about 30 feet from shore in West Side Park.

McDermott estimated the youths were in the river for at least 8 life-threatening minutes before firefighters made contact with them. "They were yelling, 'I don't want to die,' " said Paterson Fire Chief Michael Postorino, who witnessed the rescue from the opposite side of the river.

Rathbone, wearing a simple life vest and connected to safety rope, started crawling across the frozen surface to try to reach the youths, witnesses said. But the ice broke when Rathbone was halfway there, sending him into the bone-chilling water, which was about 10 feet deep, authorities said.

Rathbone then swam through the ice to the victims, who were clinging to a preserver that Fire Capt. Michael Walker had thrown to them, witnesses said.

The teenagers held onto Rathbone's back as he tried to bring them to safety, but a shelf of unbroken ice blocked their way to the shore, witnesses said. At that point, McDermott, who had gone neck- deep in the water, used his body to break the shelf of ice as he and Rathbone cleared a path back out of the ice-bound river, witnesses said.

Meanwhile, Walker and Firefighter Wesley Mann pulled on a rope attached to the life preserver and Rathbone. …

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