Impulse 73: Board notes

Quiet river, quiet heroes


In your last Impulse, we discussed two Canadian fishermen who made a dramatic rescue in the turbulent December waters off Newfoundland. Now I’d like to take you to a stretch of water that couldn’t be more different: the quiet, carefully controlled Schuylkill River where it flows through Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Carnegie heroes have made seven water rescues since 1908 on this stretch of river, just a few miles long. I’d like to tell you about some of those, and finish with a rescue that, while outside the scope of a Carnegie Medal, remains very important to me personally.

This stretch of the Schuylkill is a study in contrasts. Fairmount Park buffers the river from the roiling urban life that surrounds it. Philadelphians make heavy use of the park and two major roadways follow the Schuylkill through the area. The river itself is part of the park’s architecture, and for some distance upstream from the Philadelphia Museum of Art – remember “Rocky?” – both banks of the river are lined with stone walls, hard to climb. The city’s historic boathouses sit along the river below the Art Museum and from there the numerous racing shells of the “Schuylkill Navy” practice and race. The rowers are a dedicated bunch who often venture out in nasty weather, but in every way, the river is more refined, cultivated, and controlled than the wild winter waters of Newfoundland. And yet, things happen …

These were serious rescues. Two of the seven Carnegie heroes died attempting to rescue small children, Adolph Arnholdt in 1908 and Joseph E. Mander in 1952. In 2011 Christopher DeFelice was rowing along the river on a chilly April day when a car veered off a roadway on the bank above him and plunged into the river, about 30 feet from the bank. DeFelice alone among the others on the scene, acted. He slipped from his boat, swam to the victim, located him underwater, and brought him up. The victim was struggling with Defelice and pulled them both back under water, but Defelice got him to the bank where bystanders pulled them up the wall.

Garrett Raymond Cuppels took the idea of “stepping out of the crowd to act” even further in his 2000 rescue. A crowd had gathered along the Schuylkill watching a man, standing on a bridge, threatening to jump. He did finally jump and then struggled to stay afloat in the river. The large crowd included many emergency personnel, but no one moved to help the victim. When the victim submerged and no one else helped, Cuppels, a medical student, acted. He ran to the river, shedding clothes as he went, jumped in, and swam 350 feet to the victim. He found the victim on the bottom, got him to the surface, and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the water! Maybe someone of this competence could have swum back and forth across the river several times without risk of tiring, but there was no escaping this fact: of the many dozens of onlookers, including emergency personnel looking on, Cuppels was the one and the only one to step out of the crowd and act. That is a real Carnegie hero.

Let me finish with the story of a Schuylkill River rescue that did not earn a Carnegie Medal. I have a very personal reason for including it, but it also illustrates a broader, and very important, point about the Medal.

On a pleasant June morning in 2022 Paul Laskow and a friend were out for a row. This was normal as Paul had spent much of his life on the Schuylkill. In 1965 he won the national high school championship in an eight-oared “shell.” This enabled him to work his way through college pulling on an oar for St. Joseph’s University, where his eight won the largest collegiate regatta.

The weekend before this 2022 incident he won a Masters race in a four-rower shell and finished second in an eight. Paul and his friend were enjoying themselves until Paul pulled up, said something to his friend, then collapsed and rolled out of the boat, sinking quickly beneath the water. This rolled the ultra-narrow racing shell as well, which dumped Paul’s rowing mate into the water after him.

It was a typically busy morning on the Schuylkill, and James Hughes, also out rowing with a friend, diverted to see if someone needed help. Before his boat even came to a stop, Hughes rolled into the water and swam under to retrieve Paul. Meanwhile, several motor launches carrying rowing coaches detached from the rowers they were training and converged on the site. When Hughes got Paul to the surface, there were arms waiting to lift him out of the water so the coaches could begin CPR.

This was as smooth a water rescue as you could imagine, as the river community improvised a coordinated, efficient response. Alas, it was for naught. Paul probably died in the water before he returned to the surface. If you have guessed by now that I am related to Paul, you’d be right. He was my brother, just 14 months younger. We were virtually twins.

As I have written before, “unsuccessful” rescues can still bring great benefits. Paul’s family is greatly comforted by the efforts of Hughes, Paul’s boatmate and the coaches who made this effort. And if Paul had any consciousness remaining when Hughes grasped him, how wonderful it must have been to know another human being had come to help him in the dark, dangerous waters that enveloped him.

The standards for the Carnegie Medal are very tight, and rightly so, to select the best of the best for the honor. Yet these exceptional rescues are part of a web of assistance we all provide to friends and strangers. These can range from a kind word to roadside assistance to a free meal to a water rescue. This web of voluntary good deeds is a key element of a decent society. The extreme sacrifices of our Carnegie heroes are very strong threads in that web, but every thread contributes, every thread counts. Let us all weave as we can.