6-year-old, father save elderly man in harbor

Girl alerts father after man, 83, fell off dock into the frigid water

Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Keen eyesight and quick thinking by a six-year-old girl helped save an 83-year-old man from drowning Sunday in icy waters near downtown Juneau.

Erin Cole, 6, was walking with her father and her two-year-old brother near Aurora Harbor when she spotted an elderly man who had fallen off his boat.

"We were just kind of looking at boats," Richard Cole, the girl's father, said of the incident. "We had been walking for quite a while, and I'd actually asked the kids if they wanted to turn back, and Erin said she wanted to go down one more finger."

Cole said he had stopped to look at a boat as his daughter continued walking. That's when she noticed something wasn't right.

"She called out, 'Daddy!' and seemed upset," Richard Cole said. "And I didn't have any idea of what was going on. I ... kept moving toward her, and that's when I was able to hear somebody calling out."

Richard Cole said he couldn't hear the man very well, but as he approached his daughter pointed to the man mostly submerged in the water. The man's identity could not be determined by press time.

"He'd fallen in and it looked like he tried to catch himself on the boat," Richard Cole said. "He actually had his feet on the dock, but the rest of him was in the water."

Unable to pull himself up and trying to hold his head out of the water, the man was hanging on to a rope with one hand and reaching out for help with the other, according to Richard Cole.

"He was obviously in a bad position," he said. "It looked like he'd maybe been there for a while."

Then, as Erin Cole held on to her brother, Richard Cole helped the man onto the dock and gave him his sweatshirt to wear.

"He couldn't even really sit up without help," Richard Cole said of the man. "He couldn't stand. He was shivering uncontrollably. He didn't seem to any idea how long he'd been in the water."

At about 2:42 p.m. after the unknown man was on dry ground once again, Richard Cole called 911.

Capt. Craig Brown with Capital City Fire Rescue said the man was mildly hypothermic when first responders arrived.

"We treated him for mild hypothermia," he said. "I'm not sure if he was getting into his boat or coming out of his boat, but it looked like he just slipped on the dock, (because) the dock was icy."

After visiting the emergency room to get his sweatshirt back, Richard Cole learned that the man's condition was improving.

Both Brown and Cole agreed that the man was very fortunate.

"I think if (Richard and Erin Cole) weren't around, it could have been a different story," Capt. Brown said. "No one was really in that area except for the father and his two children. It was a cold day, and he was lucky that guy and his children were there."

In addition to expressing his thanks to the EMTs who came to help, Richard Cole shared in his daughter's delight.

"It was very exciting for Erin," he said. "When I explained to her that he might not have been able to get out of the water if she hadn't seen him, she was pretty proud of herself. I'm just glad that he was OK, and I'm very proud of my daughter."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or kimberly.andree@juneauempire.com.

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