Devastated He Couldn’t Save His Dog, but Thankful for His Own Rescuers

Two clammers heard his cries; one of his dogs escaped icy harbor
Geoff Bowen and Jimmy Sullivan, who were clamming at Napeague Harbor Sunday afternoon, heard Randy Parsons calling for help from the icy water and raced out to him before emergency responders arrived. Tom Donohue

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, Randy Parsons took his two dogs — his hiking mates, as he calls them — to the Walking Dunes, on the northeast side of Napeague Harbor. The temperature had warmed up after a cold snap, but despite the 40-degree weather, parts of Napeague Harbor remained icy.

About 15 minutes into the walk, about half a mile from the end of Napeague Harbor Road, a large, black, shiny seal pulled itself onto the ice roughly 50 yards from shore, most likely to sunbathe, Mr. Parsons said. The seal caught the eye of Gus, one of Mr. Parsons’s two American Eskimo dogs. Gus trotted out onto the ice to get a closer look before his owner could stop him.

“As he approached, the seal waddled to a hole in the ice and dove in,” Mr. Parsons, a 66-year-old Springs resident who serves on the East Hampton Town Planning Board, said in a conversation yesterday. All was well, but then Gus’s sister, Mazy, joined him out on the ice. About 100 feet from shore, the 40-pound dog fell through.

“I didn’t expect them to go out there and was unprepared,” Mr. Parsons said. “In retrospect, when Mazy fell in I should have called 911 for help.”

Mazy tried to pull herself out for a few minutes, but she was not able to get herself back onto the ice. Meanwhile, Gus was still exploring, and the ice in the area seemed solid enough to support him. Mr. Parsons, wearing a sweatshirt and a vest, long johns underneath a T-shirt, a fleece hat, and hiking boots, tried sliding himself on his stomach along the route Gus had taken to get to Mazy, but he did not make it far when the ice gave way and he fell into the water.

“I expected Napeague Harbor to be shallow, but I could not touch the bottom. I tried to lift myself back onto the ice, but when I pushed, the ice broke, and I was back in the water.”

The nearest tidal gauge, in Fort Pond Bay, registered a water temperature of about 35 degrees that afternoon.

He managed to swim and break through the ice to get to Mazy, and then “was able to give her butt a shove up, and she got back up standing on the ice.” That’s when Gus, at about 32 pounds, came over and fell in too.

The dog paddled and barked anxiously but, like Mr. Parsons, was unable to get out of the icy waters. The two were about 30 feet from each other.

“I felt I had to try to get myself up on the ice to help him,” Mr. Parsons said, but it kept breaking when he tried to lift himself out. He was tiring and losing feeling in his hands. Hypothermia was setting in.

“I finally started yelling, ‘Help!’ ”

About a half-mile away, north of where Mr. Parsons and Gus were struggling in the water, Geoff Bowen and Jimmy Sullivan had been clamming, separately, for about two hours.

Mr. Sullivan, 55, heard the cries for help about every 10 seconds. “It was so rhythmic — that’s what caught my attention. Like, ‘Gee, that’s intentional.’ Sort of like a lighthouse beacon that flashes every 10 seconds.”

“It was the barking that got my attention,” Mr. Bowen, who is 50, said. He had heard the shouts, but they were faint at first. Judging from the dog’s bark, he knew it was in distress.

The two men looked at each other and ran toward their vehicles. Mr. Bowen’s wife, Briana Prado, who was sitting in the passenger seat of his Jeep, dialed 911, and they headed toward the sounds.

Mr. Sullivan’s girlfriend, Adrian Martin, who was sitting in his truck with Tom Donohue, a Montauk photographer and friend, also phoned police. They had heard the sounds too.

Mr. Donohue said the dog’s bark was alarming. “That’s a different type of bark — not a catch the stick, ‘Woof, woof, woof, I’m happy’ bark.”

Mr. Sullivan got on the phone briefly to describe their location — the northwest corner of Napeague Harbor — and Ms. Martin stayed on the line so dispatchers could track their exact location.

A call went out to the Amagansett Fire Department, the East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad, and East Hampton Town police just before 4:30 p.m.

While dispatchers instructed the callers that no one else should go in the water, there was no time to spare. They could see someone up to his neck in water, occasionally trying to get his arms above the ice.

“It was paramount we get him out of the water. There was nothing else to do but go get him,” said Mr. Sullivan, who has been a year-round surfer for 30 years and is a former lifeguard.

The men, in waders, grabbed their clam rakes and a 25-foot rope from Mr. Sullivan’s truck and headed toward Mr. Parsons. The ice did not hold Mr. Sullivan long, though Mr. Bowen, who is lighter, was able to tread on top of it a little longer. “It felt like a trampoline,” Mr. Bowen said.

Mr. Parsons heard the men arrive. “I remember feeling stubborn and determined . . . but also aware that I was losing feeling and strength.”

One of the first Amagansett firefighters to arrive on the scene Sunday had a six-foot dinghy in his truck, which rescuers used to get Randy Parsons back to shore.  Briana Prado

Gus was barking more and more anxiously, Mr. Parsons said, though the others don’t recall seeing him at that point. They remember Mazy, on the ice, barking and running back and forth between shore and her owner. Mr. Parsons remembers how she came over and licked his face when he had tried to lift himself onto the ice earlier.

As the men approached him, “He looked very, very icy, like somebody who was left out in a storm. His face was icy, his hair. He kind of had a glazed-over look in his eyes,” Mr. Bowen said.

They tried throwing a rope to him. Mr. Parsons was not able to grip it, but did wrap it around his wrist. He still could not pull himself up. Once waist-deep in the water, Mr. Sullivan broke through the rest of the ice, using his elbows to push it up in order to make it to Mr. Parsons. They grabbed him and started dragging him through the ice and the path they had created back toward the shore.

As they pulled him slowly to shore, trudging through the ice, they could see the flashing lights of the emergency responders arriving, which was one of the last things Mr. Parsons remembers seeing before arriving at the hospital.

“By the time we got him in knee-deep water, I was shot,” Mr. Sullivan said. His waders had filled with the icy water, and he could not longer move. He told Mr. Bowen that he had to get the waders off. With one arm holding onto Mr. Parsons, Mr. Bowen used his free hand to remove Mr. Sullivan’s waders.

One of the first firefighters to arrive at the beach had a six-foot dinghy in the back of his pickup truck, Amagansett Fire Chief Bill Beckert said. The chief, along with his brother, Second Assistant Chief Chris Beckert, and police officers on the scene grabbed it and waded through the ice out into the water, keeping it on top of the ice.

By this time, Mr. Sullivan, without his waders weighing him down, ran to shore with some help from an officer. In about waist-high water, Mr. Bowen and others who were in their street clothes were able to lift Mr. Parsons into the skiff and drag it back across the ice to shore, Police Sgt. Danny Roman said. “We got his wet clothes off, wrapped him in a blanket, ran him in a pickup up to the parking lot to the ambulance that was waiting.”

While police reported that Mr. Parsons was conscious and alert, he was exhibiting signs of hypothermia. All he remembers is the responders cutting his clothes off.

Around 4:50 p.m., fire personnel reported on the radio that everyone was out of the water. Mr. Sullivan walked to his truck, took off his wet clothes, and got warm. He refused medical assistance.

With the men out of the water, attention turned to the dogs. Mazy was on shore with Ms. Prado and Ms. Martin, who put a blanket around her to keep her warm. Chris Cinque, one of the East Hampton Ocean Rescue personnel, entered the water wearing a wetsuit — about chest-deep, police and fire officials estimated — and pulled Gus to shore.

“He was cold,” Chief Beckert said of the dog. “He didn’t have a whole lot of movement. He had shallow breathing.”

Once on shore, fire personnel wrapped the dog in blankets and warmed him in a truck before taking him to meet an East Hampton Town Animal Control officer who had been summoned.

“I am devastated that I could not help him,” Mr. Parsons said of the dog, who he has had since he was a 10-week-old puppy. “I am grateful for the nearly nine years I had with Gus’s remarkable spirit, intelligence, wild know-how, and sense of humor.”

“I am grateful Mazy and I can hike together again — and most of all to the clammers and emergency services personnel who gave me an extension on my lease on life,” he said. “Those people, the clammers and the Amagansett emergency services, saved my life.”

He knows he is lucky to be alive and hopes to thank his rescuers in person when he is feeling better. He believes he was in the water for 20 to 30 minutes. At Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, he was told his body temperature was 90 degrees when he arrived.

Mr. Parsons received continuous intravenous fluids and was released Tuesday afternoon. He still did not have feeling in half of his fingertips yesterday, and the hospital would have liked him to stay longer. But he said he is happier recuperating at home — with Mazy by his side. 

“I am devastated that I could not help him,” Randy Parsons said of Gus, above, who he had owned since he was a puppy.Randy Parsons
Police and emergency responders came to the aid of a man who had fallen through the ice in Napeague Harbor as well as the rescuers who went after him.Durell Godfrey