“What the hell am I doing?”
The shock of it all poured over him as his head broke the surface of the icy lakewater he’d later learn measured a meager 36 degrees on that balmy December day. It was a fleeting thought, though, the kind that must be quickly forgotten when a man’s life is at stake.
So that's what Frank McLaughlin did. He pushed the fear from his mind and started swimming toward the other man in the water.
That man was Jerry Paine.
A husband and father to a young son, Paine and his family had moved here from Texas in 2007, settling on the shores of Nutting Lake because of the recreational options its waters offered. Rarely did Paine go out on the water alone, but on this day he headed out with three rods, three different lures, but no life jacket.
It was foolish for Paine to go out on the water without a life jacket, and even more foolish of him to stand up in the boat, hindsight says. However, foolish as they were, those actions may have saved his life.
It was a Friday afternoon in early December 2011.
After his shift ended, Frank McLaughlin shot over to MicKee's On the Water in Billerica for a late lunch and maybe a few beers with his brother. And when the lone fisherman on the water stood up in his canoe, it registered just enough with McLaughlin that he made weak joke about it to his brother.
“And then I looked up and saw that he was gone,” said McLaughlin, a Lexington resident, who was 46 at the time. “I saw some people looking out the window, but I knew right away that he was going to be in trouble because it was so cold out.”
On this particular day, Paine had spent the late morning and early afternoon playing golf with friends. And then after his own late lunch, he decided to head out on the water. On a day like this, before the ice sheet close the pond over, the lucky ones can catch some larger fish, which feed heavily to fatten up before a long winter under the ice.
He wasn’t sure what it was, but something about the man standing up out on the canoe made Frank McLaughlin take notice. Whatever it was, it was enough of an imprint that when McLaughlin looked back up and the man was gone, he knew it was time to call for help. Somehow, Paine had dropped a paddle in the water. Instinctively, he reached for it and capsized his canoe, dumping him into the frigid waters of Nuttings Lake.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin yelled for the bartender to call 911 and made his way to his truck. Not knowing the neighborhood, he did his best to drive toward the water before parking and running through backyards toward the point in the water where the fisherman fell in.
As his body sunk beneath the freezing water, Paine’s survival instincts kicked in. He pointed himself toward the dock below his friend’s home and started swimming in that direction. But the more he swam, the more difficult swimming became.
McLaughlin was running along the shoreline. He found and tried to launch a canoe into the water, but it was too tightly tethered. So he kept moving along the shoreline to the next batch of boats. Again, all locked up.They didn't know it at the time, but both Paine and McLaughlin were making their way toward the same destination: The dock in Eileen Conway‘s back yard.
The man in the water, Paine, was losing strength in his arms and legs with every stroke, and laboring to keep his head above the water. Meanwhile, McLaughlin, finished with locked up rowboats, yelled for the man struggling to stay afloat.
“Are you OK,” called the man making his way along the shoreline. “No, Help!” cried the man from the water. By this time, 911 had been called and emergency responders were on their way. But McLaughlin was on the front lines of saving Paine’s life, and the drowning man’s words inspired action.
McLaughlin leapt from the Conway's dock and into the water, and swam out toward Paine, who was rapidly losing strength. As he hit the water, doubt flickered through McLaughlin’s mind.
“When I first dove in there, for a minute I thought I could be in trouble,” McLaughlin said last week. “I had my shirt and pants and boots on, and I thought, ‘Ought oh, this might not have been the best idea.’”
Swimming through that initial shock, McLaughlin made his way toward Paine and steadied the floating man’s head above the water. By the time he got them pointed in the right direction and kicking back toward shore, reinforcements were making their way down Eileen Conway’s backyard.
Police, firefighters and even his brother were making their way toward the water to rescue Jerry Paine and, now, Frank McLaughlin. Everything was going to be alright.
“Once I saw them, I was pretty happy,” McLaughlin said. “He was conscious, and once I saw the cop jump in the water, I felt pretty good that we were going to be OK.”
Maybe the craziest part about this story is not what Frank McLaughlin did after seeing a man he didn’t know capsize in an icy pond. Equally amazing is what he did after that.
Paine, the man in the water, was rushed by ambulance to Lahey Clinic, where he was treated for hypothermia and released the following day. Meanwhile, McLaughlin ran into his brother, and the two nonchalantly headed back to the bar, where Frank McLaughlin received a few complimentary beers and pats on the back.
A bit of a reluctant hero, McLaughlin will agree that he went above and beyond, that his actions that day were heroic. It’s the kind of gut-check everyone hopes they’ll pass, and McLaughlin says he's glad he did.
“The fact that I was instrumental in saving a guy’s life, I guess it is, if you really stop and think about it,” said McLaughlin. “I would like to think Id’ do it again. Every once in a while you wonder how you would react, and it’s kind of nice to know you’d do the right thing.”
Later this month, McLaughlin, a ramp transport driver at the Boston Ramp, will receive the FedEx Humanitarian Award in Memphis, Tenn. The award is the company’s highest non-service award, and recognizes employees who go above and beyond for their community. In the nearly 40 years of the award’s existence, FedEx has only bestowed about 380 employees with this award. While feeling honored to receive it, McLaughlin said he was not real comfortable in the spotlight regarding the award.
“Really it was just sort of instinct,” he said about his actions that day. “It was the kind of stuff you’re brought up with, that’s bred in you. My father would have done the same sort of thing.”