J.P. Onhiser, RailWorks Bridge Division superintendent, was at a lake near his home hoping to snag some crappie when he recognized a swimmer in trouble.
It was a Friday evening in March on 707-acre Raccoon Lake in Centralia, IL, about 60 miles east of St. Louis. J.P. was investigating some brush piles when he noticed a woman far from shore. The woman, a lake resident, had swum to retrieve a neighbor’s pedal boat that had drifted offshore in high winds.
“I was going by that area in my boat and realized there was a person in the water. I could see her head next to the overturned boat. As she thought she was getting the boat,” J.P. says, “the winds had pulled her out a good distance from the shore line.
“I traveled over to help, knowing the water was extremely cold. The water temperature of the lake that day was only 42 degrees. When I got to her, she was very cold and disoriented, showing the beginning of stages of hypothermia.
“I was not able to lift her into my boat because she was ‘dead weight’ due to being exhausted, and I was afraid of hurting her if I tried to pull her in. (The boat, a deep-V fishing boat, sits relatively high out of the water.) I deployed my trolling motor, which is operated by a remote control kind of like a keyless entry remote on a car, so I was able to hold her and drive the boat toward shore at the same time.”
J.P. towed the woman, who was not wearing a life jacket, safely to shore. A bystander had already called 911. Several emergency units responded, and the woman was taken to a hospital. J.P. says the responders told him “they weren’t sure how much longer she would have made it in the cold water and thanked me for the help.” In fact, the Centralia Fire Department later thanked J.P. formally at a union meeting with a plaque for his “humanitarian effort assisting in a water rescue.”
“I was glad to be in the right place at the right time to help her,” J.P. says. “Someone was watching over her, that's for sure.”