CFL News
January 05, 2012

Off-duty firefighter rescues fisherman from Diversey Harbor

A heroic off-duty Chicago firefighter saved a fisherman from drowning in Diversey Harbor yesterday

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

By Mitch Dudek

An off-duty Chicago firefighter fishing at Diversey Harbor is being hailed as a hero after he was able to help rescue a fellow fisherman who fell into bone-chilling water Wednesday.

Chuck Wahtola, 67, of Colorado, fell off the pier he was fishing from about 3:45 p.m., police said. Wahtola was being kept overnight at St. Joseph Hospital for observation.

Firefighter Billy Miller, 37, who moments earlier had met the man and shared casting tales, was fishing nearby when he heard shouts of “Billy! Billy!”

Miller, a six-year veteran of the department, ran to Wahtola, then laid on the dock and held Wahtola’s head above water with one hand as he reached in the pocket of his thermal overalls with the other to grab his new iPhone.

“I knew I couldn’t get him out by myself,” Miller said.

“When you’ve got a guy that big in the water, you need an army to get him out,” said Miller, who estimated Wahtola, with water-logged clothes, weighed more than 400 pounds.

But Miller could not remember how to get the proper screen on his iPhone to dial 911, so he called his firehouse — listed “Engine 42” on speed dial — which he knew had divers ready to go.

By the time his comrades arrived more than 15 minutes later, Wahtola’s face was turning blue.

Two divers jumped in and with help of eight men on the pier, including cops and firefighters, rescuers were able to secure the man’s waist and arms with line and haul him from the water, which was about 32 degrees.

“My temperature was down around 90, I was moving toward hypothermia,” recalled Wahtola, who fell from a folding chair. “I was very fortunate to get out when I did. Billy and those men saved my life.”

Miller said, “we took his wet boots off and we took off his wet jacket and left his pants on and covered him in blankets and towels.”

But the good news?

“When he left here he was conscious and alert,” Miller said. As paramedics took — the man away, he was concerned about what would happen to his fishing tackle.

“I guess it had to be divine intervention,” said Wahtola, who was in town because his son’s wife is expecting to have a baby later this month. “Thank God for Billy.”

Miller, of Mount Greenwood, is a graduate of Marist High School. His home firehouse is at Illinois and Dearborn. “I don’t consider myself a hero. I’m just a fireman who loves to fish and I was at the right place at the right time,” Miller said.

But Miller conceded Wahtola was lucky he was there. “I’d just finished a continuing education class at the Fire Academy . . . and was considering going home, but my wife [Karen] gave me the green light to fish because she was going to Mario Tricoci to get her hair done.”