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Stranded on the Coldest Day of the Year | A Cold Day for a Swim

Phil jumped on two. The water knocked the air from his lungs. He thought he’d hit a wall. An instant later he heard Roger’s scream, as he too hit the water. Roger’s lungs compressed from the shock. He couldn’t breathe for a few seconds. The water quickly seeped through their clothing, weighing them down. Phil looked up and realized how far away the shore really was — nearly 200 yards. He wondered for the first time if they’d make it.

Roger swam overhand, the only way he knew how. His arms burned each time he reached to stroke. He tried to remember how long a person could live in water this cold. Was it five minutes? Ten?

Phil tried to keep himself under water. It was so much warmer than the air. He kept looking back at Roger. He wasn’t so afraid of not making it to shore as he was of making it alone. When Roger called to him, “I can’t,” Phil yelled back, “You can! It gets shallow in a few feet! Come on!”

About halfway across, Roger couldn’t feel his arms, had to look to see if his legs were still moving. He wasn’t going to make it. He crossed his arms and rolled over on his back to rest and breathe.

Phil looked back, saw Roger floating. “No!,” he screamed. “Stay underwater!”
When Phil reached the shallows, he was still strong enough to stand and walk onto the wide, uneven rocks. It shocked him to look down and see his bare feet. His socks had slipped off in the swim.

In order to take best advantage of the current, the two men had swum away from the place they’d put the boat in hours before. Phil could see the cottage where he’d parked his truck. It was about 600 yards away. He turned and waited for Roger, who was floating helplessly 50 feet from shore. “I can’t,” he said feebly.

“Come on, Roger. It gets shallow in a couple of feet. Come on.” But Roger didn’t seem to be listening anymore. The wind had frozen the thin layer of water on Phil’s skin. His clothes crackled and stiffened, but he jumped up and down on the rocks, waiting, ready to go back in if Roger went under.

Roger doesn’t know how he got to shore. He had given up. He was thinking about seeing his father, who had died of cancer a few months earlier. He thought about never seeing his wife again. Just as he wondered how it would feel when the cold seawater poured into his mouth, his foot hit bottom. He crawled onto the shore, clutching at some seaweed to keep himself from rolling back in.

Phil said, “I’m going for help.” He could only take tiny steps. The vicious wind had stiffened his arms and legs, and the rocks were slippery with a fresh dusting of snow. He fell every few feet, and each time he tried to stand he felt heavier.

He still doesn’t know how long it took him to reach the truck. At one point, he reached to climb over a tall, jagged rock. It slipped from him and he landed on his back. He closed his eyes and wished for sleep. Then he thought of Roger. “If I don’t get up, he’s gone for sure.” Phil called to Roger and heard an answering shout. He forced himself up.
He stumbled to the truck. Miraculously, he’d left the keys in it. He started the truck and batted the stick into gear, determined to stop the first person he saw.

* * *

Norm Libby and his wife, who lived about a half mile down the road, had just returned from a half day’s work at his father’s boat shop. They sat down in the living room to watch TV with their daughter Tara. At about 2:15 the dog started barking. “Dad,” Tara said. “There’s a man coming. He looks — wet.” They heard a wild pounding at the door. Norm opened his front door to find a strange frozen man. His hair and beard had matted into ice. His skin was whitened and shiny, like wax, his lips blue, his eyes dull. “Roger!” The man shouted. “Roger. He’s down at the shore. Go get him.” Norm backed up, startled. The man slurred like a drunk, he stumbled inside and began to undress, clumsily pulling clothes from his brittle skin.

“Roger who?”

“Roger Chandler!” said the man. “He’s down at Lindsay’s cottage. I had to leave him. We’ve been in the water.” Norm recognized his cousin’s name. He called for his wife and daughter to help the man into the shower and get him blankets. Norm left for Lindsay’s cottage, expecting to find a corpse.

* * *

Phil Rossi’s sister, Cindy Fagonde, had been the resident EMT on Beals Island for four years. People trust her so much that they often call her at home, when she’s off duty, with their emergencies. They don’t take chances on professionals they don’t know.
At 2:20 p.m. she picked up the ringing phone. A young woman’s voice said, “Quick. They need help.”


Updated Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

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