Rescue from water turns acquaintance into a hero

By Lynn R. Parks

A month ago, Lester Stagg and Gay Kern were mere acquaintances. But today, he is her hero. "I don't know what I would have done without Mr. Stagg," said Kern, Seaford, whom Stagg pulled from Williams Pond after her boat capsized. "My dogs and I are here and are fine, thanks to Mr. Stagg."
Sunday, June 4, was a perfect spring day. Kern, whose Middleford Road backs up to Williams Pond, decided to go out on the pond to take pictures, something she has done often in the three years she has lived there. She walked to her 10-foot aluminum jon boat and then realized that her two dogs, 14-year-old Muffin and 5-month-old Annie, had followed her from the house. "I thought, 'What a pain. I will have to take them back up to the house.' But then I thought, 'Well, they can just come with me.' I thought they would just sit with me in the boat." But Annie, a beagle mix, had other ideas. The boat was in the middle of the pond when she decided to take a dip.
"She thought it was just a big swimming pool and jumped in," said Kern, 50. "I tried to grab her and couldn't, so I guess it was mother's instinct. I jumped in." Kern was able to grab the 30-pound Annie and heave her back into the boat. But getting herself back into the vessel was not so easy. "I tried to climb in and the boat tipped over and sank," she said. Kern, Muffie and Annie were all three in the 60-degree water and the boat was stern down in the 10-foot pond. Annie, as she had previously demonstrated, could swim. Kern could swim.
But Muffin, a 15-pound Shih Tzu, repeatedly went under. "I'm trying to hold onto her and it got to the point that I got tired," said Kern. "I could have swum in to shore but didn't, because I couldn't leave them." "I was totally discombobulated," she added. "I didn't know what to do with the two dogs. I can think of 20 plans right not, but not then."

So she screamed for help. "I saw some people come out but they had their cell phones. They were calling for help. I saw Mr. Stagg walk around his yard and I was screaming, 'Please, please.' I knew he had a boat and I was losing it. I was tired and I was scared because of the dogs." "I heard somebody yelling for help," said Stagg, 66, who has lived in Beaver Dam Heights since 1964. "I looked out and there was a woman in the water swimming and her boat was sinking." Stagg took his paddle boat out into the pond to Kern, who was about 40 yards offshore, and after Kern grabbed onto it, paddled the boat back to shore. Annie swam alongside her mistress. But Muffin was left behind.
"After he got me into shore, he went back out and got Muffie," said Kern. "She was not breathing when I got to her," said Stagg. "I squeezed a lot of water out of her and did mouth to mouth resuscitation." By the time he got back to shore with the dog, she was breathing.
About five minutes after Kern made it to shore, members of the Seaford Volunteer Fire Department showed up. According to firefighter Ken Tull, Stagg paddled back out onto the pond with the fire company's rescue rope. He tied the rope to Kern's boat and pulled it to shore. "The fire company even salvaged my camera," said Kern. "They are wonderful people. But I was in serious shape. I don't know if I could have lasted in the water until they got there."
Kern, who is a social worker for the Seaford School District, suffered from shock and hypothermia. She refused treatment at a hospital and instead went home, where a friend who is a nurse practitioner examined her.
Annie was none the worse for her experience. But Muffin, who was also hypothermic after being pulled from the water, developed pneumonia two days after the ordeal and spent two days in an animal hospital, hooked up to oxygen. She is completely recovered; Kern is still visiting a chiropractor for treatment of sore muscles. And Annie, the cause of the trouble, is at dog obedience school.
"Annie turned out to be an Olympic swimmer and in retrospect, when she first jumped in I should have just let her swim to shore," said Kern, who admitted that she is embarrassed by the experience. "But when something happens, you just spring into action as best you can." She said that she is very grateful to Stagg, to whom she sent a flower arrangement featuring candy LifeSavers. As for the future, "I'm going to get a bigger boat," she said. "I need one with more depth, one that is not quite so precarious. And from now on, when I go out on the pond, the dogs are staying at home."

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