Firefighter rescues teens from lake using shovel as paddle

Volunteer Firefighter and Armstrong County Task Force 340 Chief John Uskuraitis used the shovel to paddle and break through ice to get to the teens


Dillon Carr
The Tribune-Review

WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pa. — Firefighter John Uskuraitis said he “thought the worst” when he arrived at Northmoreland Park Lake where two teenage boys struggled to get out of the frigid water Saturday afternoon.

But as soon as he got closer, he saw them moving.

Armstrong County Task Force 340 is a volunteer water rescue group made up of firefighters and EMS personnel from multiple agencies. On Saturday, members of the task force helped rescue two teens whose raft capsized on a frigid lake. (Photo/Armstrong County Task Force 340 - Water Rescue Facebook)
Armstrong County Task Force 340 is a volunteer water rescue group made up of firefighters and EMS personnel from multiple agencies. On Saturday, members of the task force helped rescue two teens whose raft capsized on a frigid lake. (Photo/Armstrong County Task Force 340 - Water Rescue Facebook)

He, along with his counterparts from Markle, Vandergrift and Allegheny Township volunteer fire departments were able to rescue the shivering teens and get them taken to Forbes Hospital in Monroeville.

“I’m amazed that they weren’t (hypothermic),” he said, estimating they had been submerged in the water for 30 minutes after their inflatable raft capsized.

He thanked his training and 20-odd years of experience for knowing what to do right away.

Uskuraitis is the chief of Armstrong County Task Force 340, a water rescue group made of trained volunteers from Markle, Vandergrift and North Apollo fire departments and Lower Kiski EMS.

He said he had to improvise a bit before he could get out on the water to save the teens from hypothermia, which can set in around 15 to 30 minutes in water that is 32 to 40 degrees. Uskuraitis said the Northmoreland Park Lake water was in the 30s.

When he got to the scene, he began dressing in his cold water gear, which most people refer to as a dry suit. While he did that, other rescuers tried throwing ropes out to them.

But the ropes were coming up short.

So Uskuraitis spotted a park rowboat that was chained up. He didn’t have the key, so he grabbed a set of bolt cutters on a rescue truck and cut the chain — only to discover he didn’t have a paddle.

“So I used a flat shovel,” he said, adding that’s another tool commonly found in emergency trucks.

When Uskuraitis got on the water, he realized it wasn’t water. It was ice. The lake’s shore was frozen.

So he broke the ice as he paddled out in the boat to the teens.

“When I got out there, I could talk to them. So they weren’t super hypothermic. They helped me get them inside the boat,” he said.

Per his training, the boat was tied to a rope hoisted by men on shore, making the trip back to land a breeze.

Uskuraitis said the teens, who police did not identify, told him they were out on the lake on Friday “and didn’t have any problems.”

“They didn’t say why they were out there,” he said. He said one of the teens on the raft had a cell phone and tried calling for help, but he couldn’t get a signal. A friend on shore told a similar story to Uskuraitis.

The friend declined to comment to a reporter.

However, Uskuraitis said the friend thanked him.

“He came up to me, shook my hand and thanked me — and that meant a lot to me. He said, ‘thanks for saving my friends,’” Uskuraitis said.

Ultimately, it was a woman walking through the park who called the authorities, said Markle VFD Chief Jim Rearick.

Rearick said the call came in at 12:25 p.m. The teens were on land by 12:44 p.m., he said.

Rearick said the teens’ inflatable boat had an anchor attached to a rope that was in the water.

“So I think they were trying to swim to shore but couldn’t and didn’t let go of the rope (attached to the anchor),” Rearick said, adding he didn’t know why they would be using an anchor.

“I don’t know if they used it for fishing or what,” Rearick said. “But it’s not a very good time of the year to do it. … It all worked out well for them. Maybe hopefully, they won’t do something stupid like that again.”

Westmoreland County Park Police Shift Cpl. Eric Bosco said they were rescued from water that was up to 15 feet deep.

“The ice is very thin in that area,” he said, referencing the middle of the lake where the teens had fallen in.

Bosco said canoes and kayaks are allowed, but not during the winter months.

“At this time of the year, no watercraft is permitted on the lake,” he said, adding he does not know if the teens will be charged. He said his department will confer with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission during the investigation.

Bosco did not know the teens’ conditions, but he said they are being treated for cold-water exposure at Forbes Hospital in Monroeville.

Rescue crews from the Markle, Vandergrift and Allegheny Township fire companies responded along with Lower Burrell EMS, Westmoreland County Park Police and state police.

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©2020 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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