Little Girl Fell Over The Front Of The Boat And Went Underneath.
Story by Bill Greer
For several years now it has been our tradition to spend the Memorial Day weekend visiting my parents at their cottage on Wheeler Lake near Lakewood, Wisconsin.
In 1998, my wife Sally and I invited our daughter Pam and her husband Tate and our two beautiful grandchildren Paige (three years old at the time) and Anthony (one year old) to go along. It was a beautiful weekend of sun and nice weather on a pretty lake in “God’s country”.
One of the rituals we have when up at the cottage is to take a slow leisurely cruise around the lake on my parents’ pontoon boat and enjoy the snacks and sodas Mom brings along. We make our way around the lake looking for eagles and loons and seeing what the rest of the vacationers are up to.
On this particular day we took our granddaughter Paige with us while her father stayed and fished off the dock and her mother stayed in the cabin while Anthony took his nap. We were into our usual routine and enjoying the lake except that Paige kept looking over the front of the pontoon boat at the water passing underneath which is a very dangerous position.
Mom kept asking her to get back from the railing, but being a typical inquisitive 3 year old she paid no attention. I was in the front chair so I held onto her jacket hood so we wouldn’t have an accident. Mom finally used a stern voice and Paige came back to the seats and started eating snacks. I swiveled my chair around and started to enjoy some of the goodies myself. Paige took her jacket off and ate a little more. Being an active little girl this wasn’t about to last though. She darted back past me to the front of the boat as a jet ski zoomed by in front of us. Paige got to the front railing just as the wake from the Jet Ski hit us. This caused her to lose her balance and to the terror of all of us on board she fell over the front of the boat and went underneath.
I dove to the railing to try and catch her but was too late. Sally immediately went over the side of the boat and into the water. As I got up from the front deck and ran to the back of the boat I saw that Paige’s forehead was split open from one side of the hairline to the other and blood was rushing out and being washed away by the water.
She had hit the propeller and was floating, lifeless, behind the boat. Sally got to her just as I was jumping from the deck over the back seat and motor into the water (Dad said he never saw anyone that fat jump so far). Sally and I are both former lifeguards, which helped, but unfortunately we were also wearing clothing fit for late spring in northern Wisconsin.
Sally was holding Paige up when I finally got to them, but she had on a t-shirt, sweater, jacket and blue jeans which was making it very difficult to keep herself above water, much less support Paige’s limp body. I took over for Sally and she was able to swim back to the pontoon boat. I started pulling Paige back toward the boat, but since I had on almost as much clothing as Sally did I wasn’t getting anywhere fast. I started to scream for my Dad to back the boat up, but he was afraid that with the high back seat he wouldn’t be able to see us and might hit both of us with the motor.
I yelled to throw us a lifejacket or floatation cushion, but we were too far away and it fell far short. It was pretty obvious that we weren’t going to make it under my power, coupled with the fact that Mom hadn’t seen Sally swim back to the side of the boat and was yelling “where’s Sally”, a bit of panic was setting in. I just kept saying “please God, please God, please God”. All of a sudden a fishing boat appeared behind us. He had seen the accident and was using his trolling motor to get over to us. Unfortunately, he over shot. He had gone 10 to 15 feet past us.
I was about done in by this time so I hollered to throw us something so that I could at least put it under Paige so she would stay afloat if I sank. A young boy in the boat threw us a lifejacket which I slipped under Paige while the boat was backing up. I was literally swimming in Paige’s blood at this time.
As the boat got closer I gave Paige and the lifejacket one last shove to the boat as well as kicking with all I had left and all the while saying “please God”. I was scared that Paige was no longer alive. She hadn’t even twitched since we got to her and had lost a lot of blood from the cut to her head. That last shove and kick got her close enough to the fishing boat that one of the men in it reached over and picked her up. The minute he did Paige began to cry! Sweeter music was never heard. She was alive! I was totally exhausted and knowing she was alive seemed to relax me or something, but I was about to do a “Leonardo from TITANIC” act and sink to the bottom when a hand grabbed my wrist.
Dad was about to jump in off the pontoon boat, but the fisherman (Lyle Werey) yelled that “we have him”. Dad is not a strong swimmer so not only did Lyle save my life, he probably saved Dad’s. The fishing boat handed Paige off to another nearby boat which took her to Dad on the pontoon boat, while the first boat tried to haul me out of the water. Some people on shore called to Dad to put in at their cabin and he did.
They took Paige inside and helped her while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. It just so happens that the daughter of the people whose cabin they took her to was a nurse in the trauma center in a Green Bay hospital and had a cottage on the other side of the lake. Her son had seen the accident and immediately gone to get her. She helped Paige until the paramedics arrived.
Meanwhile, I had gone into shock. They rolled me out of the boat onto the dock and Dad and someone else helped me into the house. I don’t remember anything about the inside of the house except that I was covered in a blanket and now only had my underwear on. They had taken off all the cold wet clothes in an effort to get me warm. Paige and I were then off in separate ambulances to the Oconto Falls hospital. The only thing I remember about the ambulance ride (about 45 minutes) was saying “please God, let her be okay” and the EMT telling me that my temperature was UP to 93 degrees.
When I arrived at the hospital Paige was already there and was being taken care of. She would need emergency surgery and was put on the “med-flight” to Children’s Hospital in Madison. I finally got warmed up and the doctors cleared me to leave in time to see the helicopter take off. We jumped in our car and headed to Madison. Paige was out of surgery when we got there. We did a lot of praying. When the doctors spoke to Pam they told her that there was no brain damage, only a nick to the membrane, and that by the time she was 16 the scar on her forehead might not even be there. Two days later Paige was tearing down the hall on a tricycle with our other daughter Jennifer trailing behind her with the I.V. stand. She was going to make it!
There were some scars left on the older folks though. Mom and Dad didn’t go on the pontoon boat again the entire summer until Sally and I went up on Labor Day weekend. I personally get a queasy feeling when I see someone leaning against the side of a boat unless they are fishing.
Today, Paige is in kindergarten at Clinton Elementary School which is right across the street from my classroom in the middle school. Every day at 3:00 there is a knock on my outside door (my room is a relocatable classroom) and there is Paige and her mommy. Grandpa gets a kiss and a hug before they go home. What a great way to end the school day!
There are several things that need to be pointed out in this story.
Number one: When Paige fell overboard she was not wearing a life jacket. If she had been wearing one it might have kept her up into the propeller instead of being knocked down by it.
Two: Dad almost always stands up to drive the pontoon boat when we are taking our afternoon cruise. This time he was seated with his hand on the throttle. When he saw Paige go over the rail he immediately shifted to neutral so when she was hit by the prop it was no longer in gear, it was the force of the water turning it that got her. Had he not done this it could have resulted in brain damage or even death instead of just a nick to the membrane.
Three: Paige was knocked unconscious and floated instead of going down in the water. That enabled us to get to her right away.
Four: The water was quite cold and this helped to keep the flow of blood down.
Five: The doctor’s biggest worry was infection from the bacteria in the water. The people that owned the cabin they took us to had had the water tested two weeks earlier and it was so clean and free of bacteria that it was almost drinkable.
Six: Sally and I were both former lifeguards and knew what to do in the water.
Seven: the presence of a trauma nurse to care for Paige until EMTs arrived.
And last, but not least, I will never be convinced that it was a coincidence that it was a fisherman that rescued us.
God pleased to help us and gave us our precious granddaughter back!