They were stranded on a pile of rocks 200 yards from shore. The wind chill was 53 degrees below zero. There was no help in sight. And the tide was rising.
The folks who live around Jonesport and Beals Island, two Maine coast communities that face each other across a narrow sound, would remember January 25, 1991, as the coldest day of the year. The temperature never rose above zero, and the 45-mile-per-hour wind produced a windchill of 53 degrees below. Most of the lobstermen and draggers stayed home. But periwinkles were bringing a good price — 55 cents a pound. So Roger Chandler had borrowed a boat from his mother and told his friend Phil Rossi that he knew of some ledges that hadn’t been overworked. The two men spend most of the year digging worms. But the bloodworm and sandworm markets close each November, sending them out to look for winter work. Both needed money enough to ignore the stinging wind.
The two of them drove an hour up the Maine coast from Ellsworth to Beals Island and into the driveway of a large, empty summer cottage on the water. Roger knew the caretaker wouldn’t mind their using the driveway, and he figured the trees surrounding the cottage would offer some shelter from the wind. They dragged Chandler’s ten-foot skiff down a steep incline into the 29 degree water (salt water has a lower freezing point than fresh water). Phil’s face bloomed into a deep red from the cold, and he had to shout to be heard over the roar of the wind. “Garneys!” Phil bellowed. “We’re a couple of garneys to be workin’ a day like this.” Roger didn’t smile. He’d been called a moneygrubber before.
They set out at low tide, when the ledges, now only 50 yards from shore, were exposed. It was approaching noon. Almost two hours later, having scoured two ledges, they pulled up on a third and agreed it would be the last stop. They had already collected nearly 100 pounds of periwinkles, and the cold had settled in their aching backs and knees. Also, the tide was coming in, and soon the ledges would be underwater.
After climbing onto the ledge, Phil immediately bent to scoop loose shells into his bucket. Roger pulled the boat well out of the water, but didn’t stop to tie it up. Roger grabbed his bucket and went to work. In a few minutes, both men had worked their way out of sight of the boat.
The wind was ferocious. Even in the lee of the tree line, gusts would suddenly howl down on them. Phil was glad when his bucket was filled, and he turned to empty it into the skiff. But the skiff was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, Roger,” Phil shouted. “What’d you do with the boat?”
Roger stood up, startled. They both saw it at the same moment, about 40 feet away, the wind pushing it out to sea faster than either of them could swim.
Roger’s first thought, absurdly, was that it was his father’s boat. Then the terrible danger of their situation hit him. They were stranded on a small pile of rocks in a frigid wind with a rapidly rising tide. In three hours, the rocks would be submerged. They hadn’t seen another boat all day. He turned to Phil. “We’re dead.”
At 32, Phil was a year older than Roger and felt protective of him. He wasn’t ready to give in to despair. “No,” Phil said. “We’ve got to swim.”
Roger was already shaking his head. He had never learned to move very fast in water or very far. He looked at the shore. As the tide rose, covering the shore, safety was moving farther away every minute. He turned and looked out to sea. The little boat was barely visible in the vapor produced by the collision of the cold water and the much colder air.
In a few minutes it would be out of sight. Staring out to sea, he said again and again, “We’re dead.”
“Forget the boat, Roger. It’s gone.”
“I have to see where it goes.”
“Forget it,” Phil repeated. “We’ve got to get to shore.”
A few hundred yards downshore, Phil could see two tiny figures bent over, clamming. Phil and Roger shouted and waved frantically. But the wind blew their cries out to sea like gulls. The distant men stayed bent over, hacking at the sand with their clam rakes, eventually working their way out of sight.
“We’ve got to swim,” Phil said.
“No,” Roger pleaded.
“I can’t make it,” Roger said.
Phil thought about swimming for help alone, but he knew if he tried and if Roger had to watch him drown — or worse, freeze to death on shore — that Roger would die of fear.
“We have to go together, Roger. We have to help each other.”
Roger stalled. He kept looking out to sea, hoping the boat, or some rescuer, would appear. Phil was watching the current, looking for the best place from which to jump, the spot closest to shore. They took off the boots and coats that would restrict their mobility and a couple of layers of shirts. They walked to the edge of the rocks and looked into the black water. The wind cut through their shirts and socks. Phil tensed to jump, steeling himself against the cold, against feeling. Roger looked to the shore, glanced back toward the boat. “Wait,” he said.
They put their clothes back on, waited a while. They jumped up and down to keep warm and paced from nervousness. Three times they got ready to jump. Three times they drew back. The fourth time Phil waded in up to his knees before Roger called him back. The water was rising more quickly now. The shoreline had receded another hundred yards. The longer they waited, the farther they would have to swim. Phil said, “This is it. We have to jump now.”
For the fifth time they took off their clothes and stuck them into crevices, weighted down with rocks. They also weighted down the shells they’d collected to keep them safe from the rising tide. Preparations of hope.
Roger, unexpectedly, made a joke. He remembered that he’d just signed his first life insurance policy that morning.
“We’re going to die,” Roger said suddenly, “and my wife is going to collect the cash on that insurance.” Phil laughed out loud. Roger, too, laughed, then sobered. “God, I hope she mailed that check.”
Roger knelt and prayed for strength. He hugged Phil. “You’re a good friend,” he said. “I hope you make it.” Then he looked intent. “I’m going to count to three, and you have to swear to God you’re going to jump with me.”
Phil agreed. “One,” Roger said. “Two …”
Phil jumped on two. The water knocked the air from his lungs. He thought he’d hit a wall. An instant later he heard Roger’s scream, as he too hit the water. Roger’s lungs compressed from the shock. He couldn’t breathe for a few seconds. The water quickly seeped through their clothing, weighing them down. Phil looked up and realized how far away the shore really was — nearly 200 yards. He wondered for the first time if they’d make it.
Roger swam overhand, the only way he knew how. His arms burned each time he reached to stroke. He tried to remember how long a person could live in water this cold. Was it five minutes? Ten?
Phil tried to keep himself under water. It was so much warmer than the air. He kept looking back at Roger. He wasn’t so afraid of not making it to shore as he was of making it alone. When Roger called to him, “I can’t,” Phil yelled back, “You can! It gets shallow in a few feet! Come on!”
About halfway across, Roger couldn’t feel his arms, had to look to see if his legs were still moving. He wasn’t going to make it. He crossed his arms and rolled over on his back to rest and breathe.
Phil looked back, saw Roger floating. “No!,” he screamed. “Stay underwater!”
When Phil reached the shallows, he was still strong enough to stand and walk onto the wide, uneven rocks. It shocked him to look down and see his bare feet. His socks had slipped off in the swim.
In order to take best advantage of the current, the two men had swum away from the place they’d put the boat in hours before. Phil could see the cottage where he’d parked his truck. It was about 600 yards away. He turned and waited for Roger, who was floating helplessly 50 feet from shore. “I can’t,” he said feebly.
“Come on, Roger. It gets shallow in a couple of feet. Come on.” But Roger didn’t seem to be listening anymore. The wind had frozen the thin layer of water on Phil’s skin. His clothes crackled and stiffened, but he jumped up and down on the rocks, waiting, ready to go back in if Roger went under.
Roger doesn’t know how he got to shore. He had given up. He was thinking about seeing his father, who had died of cancer a few months earlier. He thought about never seeing his wife again. Just as he wondered how it would feel when the cold seawater poured into his mouth, his foot hit bottom. He crawled onto the shore, clutching at some seaweed to keep himself from rolling back in.
Phil said, “I’m going for help.” He could only take tiny steps. The vicious wind had stiffened his arms and legs, and the rocks were slippery with a fresh dusting of snow. He fell every few feet, and each time he tried to stand he felt heavier.
He still doesn’t know how long it took him to reach the truck. At one point, he reached to climb over a tall, jagged rock. It slipped from him and he landed on his back. He closed his eyes and wished for sleep. Then he thought of Roger. “If I don’t get up, he’s gone for sure.” Phil called to Roger and heard an answering shout. He forced himself up.
He stumbled to the truck. Miraculously, he’d left the keys in it. He started the truck and batted the stick into gear, determined to stop the first person he saw.
* * *
Norm Libby and his wife, who lived about a half mile down the road, had just returned from a half day’s work at his father’s boat shop. They sat down in the living room to watch TV with their daughter Tara. At about 2:15 the dog started barking. “Dad,” Tara said. “There’s a man coming. He looks — wet.” They heard a wild pounding at the door. Norm opened his front door to find a strange frozen man. His hair and beard had matted into ice. His skin was whitened and shiny, like wax, his lips blue, his eyes dull. “Roger!” The man shouted. “Roger. He’s down at the shore. Go get him.” Norm backed up, startled. The man slurred like a drunk, he stumbled inside and began to undress, clumsily pulling clothes from his brittle skin.
“Roger Chandler!” said the man. “He’s down at Lindsay’s cottage. I had to leave him. We’ve been in the water.” Norm recognized his cousin’s name. He called for his wife and daughter to help the man into the shower and get him blankets. Norm left for Lindsay’s cottage, expecting to find a corpse.
* * *
Phil Rossi’s sister, Cindy Fagonde, had been the resident EMT on Beals Island for four years. People trust her so much that they often call her at home, when she’s off duty, with their emergencies. They don’t take chances on professionals they don’t know.
At 2:20 p.m. she picked up the ringing phone. A young woman’s voice said, “Quick. They need help.”
“Your brother and Roger Chandler. They’re in the water. Come quick!” The phone went dead.
Cindy had no idea her brother Phil was in the area, and the caller — it was Tara Libby — had failed to tell her where he might be or even to identify herself. Cindy called the ambulance in Jonesport, heard a busy signal, and slammed down the phone. She ordered her husband to go for the ambulance in his car, and then she jumped into her own car to look for Phil’s truck. She drove crazily, stopping people on the street to ask them if they knew where Phil was. She knew he could be dying.
A swimmer will lose mobility in icy water within eight minutes. Even if Phil hadn’t drowned, his chances of survival after suffering even moderate hypothermia would be less than 50 percent. He could still have a heart attack or stroke; he might fall into a coma. He might already have suffered brain damage. She knew that if his core temperature dropped below 93 degrees, he could become too confused to seek help — or too angry to accept it.
Finally the ambulance caught up to her. Cindy stopped, left her car running, and got in with the ambulance driver. All they could do was drive around the island until one of them spotted Phil’s truck.
* * *
Norm Libby couldn’t even find a body at the Lindsay cottage. He saw where they’d launched. He saw footprints coming from a different direction, leading up to where the truck had been parked. Norm was about to follow those footprints along the shore, when he heard a noise, a crackling in the woods. Norm ran and shouted in the direction of the noise.
He found his cousin Roger Chandler stumbling through the woods a few hundred feet from the cabin. Roger was hunched over, falling more than walking and mumbling to himself. He looked much worse than Phil. He didn’t seem to know where he was or why he was cold.
Norm helped him to the truck, then ran around to his own side before he realized that Roger wasn’t getting in. His stiffened fingers couldn’t open the door. Norm went back around and opened the door and helped Roger onto the seat. On the way back to his house, Norm could barely keep his truck on the road. He kept glancing over at the shaking figure slumped next to him. Roger looked bad.
* * *
It took the ambulance nine minutes to find Phil’s truck at the Libbys’ house. When Cindy and her husband arrived, the scene was chaotic — a dozen or so people, including neighbors, all talking at once. They had turned the heat all the way up, so that sweat poured from everyone except Roger and Phil. The two men were hyperventilating, shaking violently from overexertion and fear. Afghans, comforters, and towels were heaped over them, but they still looked pale and dazed. Roger lay on the couch, Phil sat in a recliner. They complained of pain, spoke and moved sluggishly. Cindy took their vitals. Pulse erratic. Blood pressure low. Pupils dilated. Muscles rigid. They were confused, not remembering what was said to them. Roger was worse than Phil. He responded only slowly to pain and light. He wheezed from the salt water he’d inhaled.
Cindy had him moved to the ambulance first to get him started breathing warm oxygen. He cried out in pain when they lifted him. If Roger went into cardiac arrest, Cindy knew they would have to leave without her brother. When they lifted Phil from the recliner, his body wouldn’t unbend. His muscles had stiffened so much that Cindy was afraid they’d break one of his bones trying to move him to the ambulance.
On the way to the hospital Phil became more and more incoherent. He began to cry, “Roger. I had to leave him. He’s at Lindsay’s cottage.”
Cindy spoke carefully to him. “Roger’s fine. He’s right here. He’s OK.”
“I’m here.” Roger said, “You saved me.”
Phil listened and understood. His body relaxed; his blood pressure dropped. He stopped speaking or moving.
Cindy was afraid he had given up. He didn’t need to save Roger anymore. She hovered over him all the way to the hospital in Machias, 27 miles away. She pinched him, coaxed him to stay awake. “You hang on,” she told him. “Roger’s going to need you.”
At Machias Community Hospital Roger and Phil were wheeled directly into the trauma room. Phil’s core temperature was 95 degrees; Roger’s had fallen to 94 degrees. They were given warm IVs and covered in thermal blankets. Then the staff, who had never treated a hypothermia case before, had to wait.
The first sign that they were out of danger came within an hour, when Phil began to shiver. A good sign. His body was finally warm enough to feel cold and had responded. An hour after that, Roger too had started to shake. At that point the doctor couldn’t resist a scolding. “What were you guys doing out there?” he asked.
Phil smiled. “Training for the Winter Olympics,” he said.
That night the Coast Guard reported that the boat could not be found. So Roger’s brother, Orin, went looking on his own. He found it run aground on Great Wass Island a few miles from the ledge. He recovered the shells in the boat, took them to market, and had a check waiting for Roger and Phil when they left the hospital the next day. The first thing Roger did before he took the boat back to his mother was put an anchor in it.
* * *
In the year since, Roger and Phil, who had worked together only a few times before their ordeal, have become inseparable. Phil’s friends call Roger, “Phil Jr.” Phil has become like an older brother to him, both teasing and protective. Roger takes Phil’s advice and endures his jokes.
Phil will always joke about that day. He laughs about his nightmares, his numb feet. But in Phil’s apartment there is a little clipping from the newspaper. It is dirty, crumpled, tucked away in the bottom of an overstuffed manila envelope that will someday be a scrapbook. The headline reads, “Maine fishermen treated after swim to beach.” At the bottom Phil has printed in black block letters: “January 25, 1991. I AM ALIVE.”
Excerpt from “A Cold Day for a Swim,” Yankee Magazine, January 1993.