ELLIOTT’S COVE, N.L.
NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR
A lifejacket and a whole lot of luck meant a happy ending to a day that could have ended in tragedy for a Random Island man last week.
Bill Fitzpatrick of Elliott’s Cove says he is thankful to several people, he calls “heroes” after things started to go wrong for him on Saturday, Sept. 1, as he was fishing for a few cod just off the shore from his house.
The 67 year-old was fishing from 12-foot aluminum boat on Random Sound; just off from the shoreline, as he’s done many times before during the 11 years he’s lived in Elliott’s Cove.
He told The Packet he launches his boat, which has a 2.6 horsepower outboard motor, from the beach on the back of his property.
After spending all day fishing from about 11 a.m. and not getting any bites, Fitzpatrick finally started hauling in several fish after 4 p.m. as the wind came up and it got rougher.
“As the weather worsened, my fishing luck improved,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “There came a time when I knew I should come in but out of stupidity and stubbornness to get my five fish, I stayed out too long. That was the cause of the problem.”
Finally, with his five fish caught, he pulled up his grappling anchor and began to return to shore.
He noticed how much he was drifting with the waves becoming stronger and stronger.
He says when he tried to position the head of his boat into the waves he was hit by a big wave. Then the wind caught the small, lightweight boat and it capsized, sending him overboard.
Thankfully, Fitzpatrick was wearing a life vest and was able to hold onto the boat. He says as soon as he went over, he didn’t want to lose contact with the boat; he stayed calm, figuring he would drift to shore instead of having to swim.
“I didn’t really panic that much because the water out there is sort of my backyard anyway … This boat is going ashore and I’m going in with it.”
Soon after, however, he saw all the contents of the boat floating ahead of him. His buckets of lures and other fishing gear were drifting away with the current while he was still staying in one spot.
His grappling anchor had hooked to the ocean floor when the boat overturned, he realized.
That’s when he began to get nervous, he says.
He knew he had to start yelling for help, as he would not be able to float ashore.
“That was the first time I really worried when I realized that,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I could die here of hypothermia.’”
When he started to call out “Help!” Fitzpatrick says what happened next was unbelievable.
The wind must have been blowing the right way to carry his voice toward shore and his house.
His teenaged daughter Laci was in her room in the house, hundreds of feet from shore, listening to music. Thankfully she still heard her father’s cries.
She turned off her music and walked to shore to investigate.
When she realized her father was in trouble, she immediately called 911.
“She’s a very level-headed, mature, smart girl,” he says, beaming with pride.
By this time, another of his neighbours had noticed something amiss and called for emergency response as well.
Fitzpatrick’s neighbours from both sides of the road, including his brother and other friends, had gathered looking for a way to help, as they waited for the RCMP and ambulance to arrive.
What they needed was a boat to get out to help him. And there was no other boat on the beach.
His neighbour, Brittany Hynes remembered another neighbor had a boat and trailer still hooked on to his ATV. Malcolm Patey’s boat was soon on the beach and in the water, with Patey, Brittany’s father Randy Verge and a police officer on board and heading towards Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick says by this time he had been in the water for over an hour. Through all of this, he says, all he could see was his daughter because she was wearing a pink sweater.
“All this time I was being buffeted by really big waves. I had everything I could do to keep contact with the boat.”
When his rescuers reached him, they couldn’t get him aboard the boat with tipping themselves over. The RCMP officer held onto Fitzpatrick as they slowly towed him back to shore, almost a kilometer away.
“She did some job of putting me at my ease,” Fitzpatrick says of the police officer. “Everything she said was so encouraging and reassuring.”
Once ashore, Fitzpatrick’s best friend Rick Patey was waiting — wading out to meet the boat and bring in Fitzpatrick. Patey told The Packet he felt so helpless waiting around as they launched the boat to rescue his friend, who was just was bobbing around in the water.
Rick and Malcolm Patey later went out and recovered Fitzpatrick’s boat and motor.
Fitzpatrick was carried by a backboard to the waiting ambulance, and covered in blankets to treat hypothermia. He was uncontrollably shivering and had difficulty speaking but says he stayed lucid through the entire ordeal. While he was in the water he kept testing his grip to make sure he could keep holding on to the boat. He says he would have tried to swim for it if he knew that help was not on the way.
He spent the night at Dr. G. B. Cross Hospital in Clarenville, treated for hypothermia and a minor abrasion on his ribs caused from him hitting the boat repeatedly.
Fitzpatrick smiles when he remembers how the paramedics had the “heat on bust” in the ambulance for him and when he was lying in bed with all the warm blankets in the ER, “it seemed like heaven.” He says it was the best feeling in the world.
He also has heaps of praise for the people who came to his rescue.
Fitzpatrick says there’s not enough praise in the world for the people who helped save his life — from his 15 year-old daughter Laci, to all of his neighbours, RCMP officers, paramedics and emergency room workers.”
“My big impression I came away from, from the whole thing, is how good people are at their jobs … Too often we don’t stop and realize how hard their jobs are and how good they are at it.”
While he’s currently on the mend, he says he still has some trouble sleeping but otherwise feels good. He’s now concentrating on making sure everyone who helped save him gets the credit they deserve. Fitzpatrick has made many calls to those who had any hand in saving his life.
A few days after the incident, with time to reflect, he says while it may seem strange, fear was never a factor for him through all of this, but it certainly gave him some perspective on his fellow man, especially in times of emergency.
“It occurred to me how caring and considerate everyone was being. I saw more kindness in that day than I’ve seen in some good parts of my life.”