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Issue Date: September 2008


Saving | a plane crash victim

A year ago, Chuck Herndon saw a Cessna crash into the black water of Lake Erie near his Kelleys Island home. He paddled out to save 7-year-old Joel Hutchison of Lima. Joel’s father, Jeff, and 9-year-old brother, Jeremy David, were killed.
as told to Chuck Bowen
It was a little after nine o’clock in the evening, and my wife, Cindy, and I had just finished dinner at my mother’s house. I was standing by the front window, taking my blood pressure, when I saw a plane that was in obvious trouble.

I ran out the door and watched it go into the water. I heard the plop and the splash, and the red light on the left wing tip disappeared.

Just a plop and a splash, like something big hitting the pool.

I screamed for my wife to call 9-1-1, and I ran to the top of a bank where I had a rowboat. I pulled it down into the water while my wife was pleading with me to go in the house to get a life jacket and a light. It was kind of loud on the shore. There was panic and frustration and people didn’t know what to do.

But I just headed out. Once I got out into the water, there was a little less breeze.

It became very quiet out there.

It’s a little tough to tell where things are at night. You lose your perception. You can’t tell how far out in the water you are. The lights could be at almost any distance. I had it a little goofed up. But once I reached that zone of quiet, I could hear something. I was able to just hear a voice — or voices, I couldn’t tell which, but they were crying for help.

I headed out toward the voices, screaming at them to keep calling. I wanted them to have some confidence that help was on its way, to focus on me and to make enough noise so I could figure out where they were. As I drew closer, I could tell it was only one voice. It sounded like the voice of a small boy.

I kept rowing, and it was pitch black out there. The moon hadn’t come up. The moon didn’t come up, I guess, until after midnight that night. At that point in the year at nine o’clock it’s very dark. So I couldn’t see anything. Neither, I suppose, could the pilot as he took off. Just plain black.

I approached where I thought the kid was, but I still couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see anything. I wondered if I was too late.

Then he grabbed the side of the boat. It surprised me.

I started to lift him by his arms, but he was too sore to do that. So we got one of his legs up, and I grabbed the seat of his pants and rolled him into the boat. It’s just this kind of tippy rowboat, so it was a little shaky getting him in there.

I would have had real trouble if he was an adult, but I think I could have had them holding on until help arrived. That could have been a while, though. There was no help out there while I was there.

I was thinking,Was he the only one? Once I knew there was someone there, I was panicked that I wouldn’t be able to get there in time. It would be kind of hard to stay up on the water that long, especially after going through a plane crash.

I listened and sat very still to hear if there was another sound out there. Because of the huge silence that the middle of the lake has, at a point like that, I knew damn well there wasn’t anybody there.

I couldn’t see anything that might have been debris, and there certainly wasn’t anybody there splashing. We stayed there for just a few moments and then I started in.

The Coast Guard searched all night for more survivors. There were maybe 50 boats out there at one time trying to find what I knew they wouldn’t find. ’Cause the kid told me. He said to me, like this, “My father has been killed in a plane crash.” And then he said, “My brother has been killed in a plane crash.”

Joel said they were all bloody and they went down. Just sort of reporting on it like that. He did know, but it seemed so detached, which maybe is healthy. But, maybe not.

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