By Jill Harmacinski
---- — 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.
They found Smith “with water up to his neck, hanging on with one hand to a wooden boom,” Skusevich said.
Bea maneuvered the boat so Skusevich could jump out and pull Smith to safety. “He was very tired and very cold,” he said. Smith was also wearing heavy clothing, which weighed him down and made him heavy and awkward in the water.
With Bea still at the wheel, Skusevich was able to pull Smith into the boat and deliver him to a waiting ambulance.
Smith was treated for hypothermia at Lawrence General Hospital but is expected to be OK. His wife came by the fire department later Wednesday and thanked Skusevich, who pulled a hamstring in the rescue.
Skusevich stressed he could not take all the credit for the rescue and praised Bea’s quick cooperation. “That kid was so instrumental. He was calm ... calmer than I was,” he said.
Marsh, in a letter to Chief Jack Bergeron, praised Skusevich’s “quick thinking” and “controlled response.”
“Inspector Skusevich was able to formulate an alternative plan, put this plan into action and bring about a positive result, all of his own volition,” Marsh wrote. He added the fire department has been well served by Skusevich during his career.
“For this reason and the simple fact that Francis would see this as ‘just doing my job,’ he should be held up proudly as an example to the many new members of our department,” Marsh concluded.
He asked for the letter to be placed in Skusevich’s personnel file and recommended Skusevich for firefighter of the year.
Skusevich, however, was modest about his efforts. He noted the day quickly went from “a routine smoke detector inspection to a life or death situation.”
“That’s why I love this job,” Skusevich said.
Smith could not be reached for comment for this story.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.