LAWRENCE — Fire Inspector Frank Skusevich was on his way to do a routine smoke detector inspection when the emergency call for a “person in the river” came over his radio Wednesday morning.
Minutes later, after commandeering a boat off Eaton Street, Skusevich pulled a cold, struggling 72-year-old man from the Merrimack River after his canoe capsized. Skusevich’s quick thinking Wednesday morning earned him department praise and nomination for Firefighter of the Year.
“He alone pulled the man, as dead weight, from the water and into the boat, a Herculean task,” Deputy Fire Chief John Marsh wrote in a letter of praise for Skusevich.
Skusevich, 59, a 25-year firefighter, said he was driving in the Andover Street area when the call came in around 10:20 a.m. Other on-duty firefighters were dispatched to the area near the Falls Bridge on Route 28. Skusevich said he drove down Eaton Street, to the Abe Bashara boathouse, to see if he could spot the person in the river.
“On a hunch I came over here to see if I could see anything,” Skusevich recalled yesterday, during an interview at the boathouse.
At the boathouse, Skusevich found Paul Bea, a worker there, and asked if he could he could start a boat up for him. He called Deputy Marsh, asking if “he could use an extra hand.” Marsh said “yes.”
Marsh noted initial reports were vague as to the location of the canoe and where the man was. Firefighters searched and found John Smith, 72, clinging to his canoe south of the Lawrence Hydroelectric Plant, which is located right next to the Falls bridge. Firefighters were trying to reach Smith by boat, but they were having trouble starting the engine.
So Skusevich and Bea, who were a half mile upstream jumped into action.
“It’s your ballgame now,” said Skusevich, recalling what Marsh said to him Wednesday morning.