July 4th 1991
I was working 8 pm to 4 am and got saddled with a late arrest. It was a muggy Michigan morning and I didn’t get home until 6 am. I tossed and turned through hours of attempted sleep. I finally dozed off into one of those fitful sweaty wrestling matches with the pillow.
Sometime after noon my pager started its dance on the bedside table. I grabbed it and saw the code for a Underwater Search and Rescue Team (USRT) call out. I dialed dispatch for the details.
Two boys, both non-swimmers, were missing and presumed drowned near the Ford lake picnic area. I lit a cigarette and got dressed. I was out the door and in my POV (Personally Owned Vehicle) and northbound before I needed to flick the ashes. I always kept my dive gear in my vehicle and organized for a quick response. The location was less than 20 minutes under normal driving times. I made it in 10.
Two things will get a Cop driving balls to the wall. The first is a 10-13 or Officer needs emergency assistance and the other is a child in danger or not breathing. It is all about measuring and balancing the potential risk against the potential benefit.
When I arrive things are chaotic. There were hundreds of people, including a number of Township Officials, near the shore. As I start to drag my gear down to the water’s edge I see a Deputy with the family at a nearby picnic table. This was an image I had witnessed dozens of times but it always stung my eyes to look. I tried not to make eye contact and to go unnoticed.
I get a quick one minute briefing from the Sergeant as I‘m huffing down another cigarette and gearing up. He tells me that a witness saw the boys struggling at the surface of the water and then they submerged.
I told the Sergeant to take the witness to the exact location they were when the boys went under. I hoped to triangulate a better last known position than we presently had.
“How long have they been under Sarge”? – “About 40 minutes” was his answer.
In cold water drowning there is a real possibility of reviving a drowning victim within the golden first hour. Because of this I decided to dive solo and not tethered to shore. I was in my Viking dry suit and in the water in two minutes.
I was working on hunches, luck and hope. I imagined being the boys as I entered the water. I walked deeper and deeper and the lake bottom began to drop quickly. I arrive at the marl bottom 20 feet later on my knees. A thick cloud of mud rose up and swirled around me. I turned to my left and there was the first boy. I grabbed him and pressurized my Buoyancy Vest, bringing us both to the surface and within yards of the shore. Deputies jumped into the water and took the boy from me. As I was turning to go back for the other boy I see Tim, a fellow USRT Team Member, and he’s already suited up. Tim and I swim back to where I had found the first boy. We submerged and within minutes found the second. We swam him to the surface and the waiting hands of the ambulance crew.
Both boys were being worked on by the ambulance and fire department crews. CPR was in progress right behind me but I was numb to it. I sat on the muddy bank with my fins still in the water wondering if this was another nightmare. I was asleep in my bed just 45 minutes ago. AMBU Bags and excited orders filled the air. I saw the Deputy walking the family farther away from the scene. It all seemed so familiar, dreamlike. Please let this be just another nightmare – Please let me wake up in my bed…
A couple of minutes later the Sergeant came by to check on me. I had him open the rear facing seal on my dry suit. “Sarge how long were they in the water”?
“Less than an hour”.
I tried my best but Kassim Ballard, age eleven, and Anthony Wilkes, age twelve, died that day.
A few days later I got dressed in my best Class A uniform, checked out a marked unit and drove down to the boys funeral in Detroit, all on my own time.
As I approached and signed the book the crowd parted. No one extended a hand. No one asked who I was. I signed my name to the book and added “USRT team member”.
I heard someone say to the family, “You ought to sue that mother fucker”.
I turned and left.
© 2015 – 2016, Michael Fulcher. All rights reserved.