KETCHIKAN — Emily Guthrie was 18 months old in 1965 when she fell from a walkway above a fast-flowing section of Ketchikan Creek.
Her tiny hands clutched a rubber doll tight as she hit the frigid water near upper Creek Street.
“She held onto that doll — and I believe that’s probably what kept her afloat,” said Albert Fred Rothfuss.
On that particular August day, Rothfuss was a 1962 graduate of Ketchikan High School who’d just returned from the National Guard Officer Candidate School as a newly minted second lieutenant.
He’d taken a job in town driving truck for Ketchikan Soda Works.
Having made several deliveries already that day, Rothfuss had filled a pocket of his new Levi’s with loose change by the time he arrived at a Stedman Street grocery north of the bridge for his next delivery.
“That’s when I was alerted that somebody was in the river having difficulty,” Rothfuss said. “People were running up Creek Street and screaming, ‘Call the fire department.’”
Rothfuss found himself running through a narrow alley between buildings toward the creek.
“And when I got to the railing, I just went ahead and went on over the railing,” Rothfuss said. “It wasn’t until I was actually up in the air that I could look out there and see Emily.”
He also noticed he’d launched himself out over a mess of broken piling, rusted pipes and old radiators.
“As luck would have it, I managed to hit the water,” he said.
He’d lost sight of the girl, though, and relied on guidance from people ashore to reach her.
“I finally got a hold of her, and by that time we were into deeper water and we got over to just about where the (Stedman Street) bridge is,” Rothfuss said. “I tried to take her out there, but it was just too steep. I couldn’t do it.”
He’d lost his shoes, and the combination of cold water, heavy clothes and swimming effort began to tire the young man.
“I was wore out trying to keep everything afloat — and that wasn’t working too well,” he said. “When I couldn’t swim anymore, I just let my change carry me to the bottom, and I held Emily’s head above water, and just kind of walked ashore.”
They were met by Mark Zartarian, a 24-year-old U.S. Coast Guard yeoman who had heard the “commotion” through an open window of the Federal Building, according to author Nancy Warren Farrell’s story about the rescue in her book: “Alaska’s Heroes: A Call to Courage.”
Emily was unresponsive, so Zartarian began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He worked several minutes before “Emily spit out water and began coughing and crying,” wrote Ferrell.
Alaska State Trooper Terry McConnaughey wrapped Emily in a blanket before speeding her to the hospital, according to Ferrell.
She was to spend several days in the hospital recuperating from her ordeal. Rothfuss and Zartarian visited Emily there, bringing a teddy bear and some chewing gum.
“I remember a huge hand with three packages of big gum,” Guthrie said this week.
It’s her only memory related to her rescue.
Rothfuss’ effort in the rescue caught the attention of Alaska Gov. Bill Egan, who recommended that Rothfuss receive Alaska’s first medal for heroism.
The medal’s design was being determined by a statewide competition among Alaska school children. The winner of the design competition was Kathy Shipley of Craig, who at one time was a neighbor of Rothfuss.
“I was the first person to ever receive the ... medal that my neighbor designed,” Rothfuss said. “It was kind of an odd coincidence there.”
After the fateful rescue, the lives of Rothfuss and Guthrie took separate directions.
Rothfuss stayed in Ketchikan for about a year before applying for extended duty with the National Guard, going on active duty as an infantry officer conducting training at Fort Lewis then undergoing training as a helicopter pilot and flying Cobra gunships in Vietnam.
After concluding his military service in 1971, Rothfuss returned to Ketchikan briefly before moving to Washington state. As Alaska’s oil pipeline was being built, he moved to Valdez to work at the Alyeska Marine Terminal there. He ultimately retired and now resides in Copper Center.
Emily Guthrie resided in Ketchikan before moving to Washington state when she was 9 years old, although she would stay in Ketchikan during the summers. At the age of about 25, she returned to Ketchikan. She resides here still, and has five children of her own.
As far as they know, Guthrie and Rothfuss never met again — until this past week.
Fred Rothfuss had graduated from Kayhi in 1962.
He’d attended one previous reunion of his classmates, and decided to visit Ketchikan this year for the Class of 1962’s 50-year reunion event.
Wednesday found Rothfuss riding on the Class of ‘62 float in the Fourth of July parade.
Among the many people watching the parade was Emily Guthrie.
“I was looking at the float, thinking it so awesome — the 50-year class,” she said. “For some reason, I was really focused on the float and I had no idea that he was on there.”
One local resident who did know Rothfuss was in town was Dody Morrison, who once worked for Rothfuss’ mom, Toni Nida, at Richard’s Hair Fashions in Ketchikan. Morrison remains close with Nida, who also had traveled to Ketchikan this past week with Rothfuss and his wife, Gretchen Rothfuss.
Morrison, knowing of the rescue that occurred so many years ago, worked to bring Rothfuss and Guthrie together once again.
Guthrie was pleasantly surprised to learn via a telephone call that Rothfuss was in town.
“I almost started crying, and I was so excited,” she said. “I was just, ‘Yeah.’”
Emily Guthrie and Fred Rothfuss met July 13 at The Landing. By all accounts, it was a wonderful time.
Rothfuss told her about the rescue from his perspective and said he’s happy that he was able to be there for her.
“And I’m happy that I had received all the training that I had, and that it prepared me to do what I needed to do,” Rothfuss said later, referring to the National Guard training he’d gone through just before returning to Ketchikan.
Guthrie said she cried and laughed when Rothfuss described how the heavy change in his pocket had helped him to walk underwater — holding her aloft — toward the shore.
“Everything that happened was like a big ... circle of events that were meant to be,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie said talking about the various connections was really awesome, and that she felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Rothfuss again.
“It was more than anything I ever expected, because I always wondered, ‘What is it going to be like? Is he still here?” Guthrie said. “He is a beautiful man.”
For his part, Rothfuss had a similar view.
“I’m just really happy that Emily got a chance to grow up and produce a family and just turn into the person that she is,” Rothfuss said. “From what I saw (Friday), she’s just a super gal.”
Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com