Southold man was minutes from death

01/10/2014 9:00 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Robert Frey (right) greets his rescuer, Jeff Heidtmann, for the first time since Mr. Heidtmann pulled the older man from the icy waters of a canal behind the neighbors’ Southold homes last Friday. The two were reunited Tuesday at Peconic Landing, where Mr. Frey is convalescing.

Jeff Heidtmann wasn’t supposed to be home last Friday afternoon. But it’s a good thing he was.

A mason for his family’s construction business, Mr. Heidtmann had expected to work a job site before the area was snowed in by last Thursday night’s blizzard. The Southold resident decided to spend the afternoon with his family and went out about 1:30 p.m. to get more firewood from the backyard of his home in Harbor Lights.

But as he stepped outside, he heard something faint in the still air, something he said sounded “unnatural.”

“It was kind of like a moan, but it was one of those noises that makes you stop and say, ‘That’s not normal,’ ” Mr. Heidtmann said.

He walked to the back of his property, near the canal that weaves behind the homes in the neighborhood. The shallow cries for help got louder.

Mr. Heidtmann didn’t see it until he got closer to the water’s edge: There between the chunks of ice was a withered, frostbitten hand clinging to the edge of his neighbor’s dock.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO  |  The dock where Mr. Frey fell into icy waters last week.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The dock where Mr. Frey fell into icy waters last week.

About 20 minutes before Mr. Heidtmann stepped outside, 84-year-old Robert Frey — a former aircraft engineer and Navy reservist — had snuck out of his house next door on Windjammer Drive.

Mr. Frey’s wife had warned him earlier in the day not to shovel the snow in the driveway. He agreed not to, but around 1 p.m. he decided to check on the de-icers breaking up the frozen canal near the pair of floating docks behind the couple’s home.

As the icebreaking machines bubbled under the water, Mr. Frey walked out onto the icy dock. He grabbed the line suspending one of the de-icers and pulled it from the canal. The machine was working normally.

Suddenly, Mr. Frey was in the water.

“I must’ve slipped on the ice while turning around,” he recalled.

Mr. Frey tried to pull himself back up onto the floating dock, but his fingers slipped from the slick platform. He couldn’t swim to shore either; the thick ice trapped him between the two docks.

Mr. Frey paddled over to a three-inch-wide metal pole anchoring the floating dock to the inlet’s bottom and grabbed on, growing weaker by the minute.

“I was up to my neck in ice,” he said.

He hollered for his wife to help, but the doors and windows of his home were all closed. Ms. Frey had no idea he was gone. He yelled again, hoping someone might hear him. No one came.

Mr. Frey doesn’t know how long he was yelling for help, maybe 15 minutes, maybe half an hour.

The last thing Robert Frey can remember is clinging to the pole in the freezing water as his body went numb.

“I could feel the end coming near,” he said. “I figured I was a goner.”

Mr. Heidtmann didn’t have time to think. He just knew he had to get his neighbor out of the water.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Mr. Frey shows his hands, which were raw and blistered from frostbite.

By the time he ran down the bulkhead and onto the dock, Mr. Frey’s skin was already turning blue.

Mr. Heidtmann wrapped his legs around the pole at the end of the dock so he wouldn’t fall in. He grabbed Mr. Frey’s wide leather belt, yanking him from the water.

“I kept saying, ‘I’m gonna get you out,’ ”Mr. Heidtmann said.

As he sat on the floating dock in a daze, Mr. Frey was still mumbling calls for help, as if his neighbor wasn’t there. Delirium caused by hypothermia had already set in and his arms and legs were turning purple, Mr. Heidtmann said.

He knew he had to get Mr. Frey, with whom he’d rarely spoken in the past, inside or he would freeze. He hoisted the man onto his shoulder and ran back up the snow-covered hill to his neighbor’s home.

“I’m not a big guy,” Mr. Heidtmann said. “[What] they say about the adrenaline, it’s real.”

Mr. Heidtmann banged on the couple’s door, alerting Ms. Frey to what had happened.

He carried Mr. Frey into the bathroom, laid him on the tiled floor near a heat vent, stripped him of his soaking wet clothes and wrapped him in blankets and towels.

Ms. Frey called 911.

Southold Fire Department EMT Craig Goldsmith had been driving through town when he heard chatter over his police scanner about an exposure emergency. As police were dispatched to Mr. Frey’s home, Mr. Goldsmith followed close behind.

Within a couple minutes after Mr. Frey was pulled from the water, Mr. Goldsmith, police and an ambulance crew arrived on the scene.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Mr. Frey remembers first being at Eastern Long Island Hospital but has no memory of how he got there or his own dramatic rescue by Mr. Heidtmann.

They found Mr. Frey still lying on the bathroom floor, babbling a stream of obscenities and trying to sit up.

“He was making no sense,” Mr. Goldsmith said.

Mr. Frey’s legs were sliced with cuts, likely from being scraped against barnacles on the dock’s edge as he tried to climb out.

Mr. Goldsmith — along with fire department volunteers Ed Boyd, Cathy Hall, Michelle Salman, Keith Cummings, Cathy Welnski and Charlie Turner — quickly loaded Mr. Frey onto a gurney and into the waiting ambulance.

As they rushed him to Eastern Long Island Hospital, volunteers covered Mr. Frey in heat packs. One of the volunteers wrapped an IV line around a heat pack, trying to warm up Mr. Frey’s body from the inside. His body temperature had plummeted to 88.7 degrees, nearly 10 degrees below normal, volunteers said.

Hypothermia begins to set in at 95 degrees.

Had he not been warmed, the platelets in Mr. Frey’s blood would have broken apart, Mr. Goldsmith said. His heart was also beating in different rhythms as his body struggled to recover, said volunteer Keith Cummings.

“The heart rhythm goes through all these different beats because it senses a problem with the body,” he said. “He was very lucky.”

Had he spent five or 10 more minutes in the water, volunteers said, Mr. Frey would have died.

“It was a great save,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “Jeff definitely deserves to be recognized. If it wasn’t for him, we’d probably be doing a [body] recovery.”

In an interview after the rescue, Mr. Heidtmann said he was just in the right place at the right time to hear his neighbor’s cries for help.

“It wasn’t his time,” he said. “I was supposed to be there, I guess.”

Mr. Frey remembers being at the hospital, though he has no memory of how he got there or his own dramatic rescue. Dressed in a hospital gown, his hands were raw and blistered from frostbite and his sore feet were tucked into gray socks.

His ankle was injured during the fall and Mr. Frey — normally a healthy man — was unable to stand. He’s expected to spend the next two weeks at Peconic Landing undergoing physical therapy to recover from his injuries.

Mr. Frey knows he’s lucky to get off that easy, thanks in large part to the heroism of his neighbor.

“I don’t know how the heck he did it,” Mr. Frey said, his eyes welling with tears. “I’m going to give that man the biggest hug I can.”

Mr. Frey got that chance Tuesday afternoon, when he met with Mr. Heidtmann at Peconic Landing for the first time since his plunge.

“I owe you,” Mr. Frey said as they embraced in his small, warm room. “You saved my life.”

“You don’t owe me nothing,” Mr. Heidtmann replied.

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