In 2014, Robert Frey celebrated his 85th birthday. He also celebrated his 64th wedding anniversary in October. There were family birthdays, too — those of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving.
But he would have missed all those celebrations, all those days, if it hadn’t been for Jeff Heidtmann.
Last January, Mr. Frey — a former Navy reservist — was walking along the dock at his house on Windjammer Drive in Southold to check on the deicers breaking up the frozen canal when he fell into the frigid water.
For more than 15 minutes, Mr. Frey tried to scramble out of the canal, but couldn’t; the ladders were surrounded by ice. Surrounded by ice up to his neck, Mr. Frey moaned for help.
“I was going to ask the good Lord to help me,” Mr. Frey said. “I remember looking up and everything was white, white, white.”
That’s when Mr. Heidtmann arrived.
Had Mr. Heidtmann not been there and not staged his rescue, Mr. Frey — a neighbor with whom Mr. Heidtmann barely spoke — surely would have died, ambulance workers said.
A week after the rescue, the Southold Town Board presented Mr. Heidtmann with a plaque honoring his actions. This paper will add its plaudits as well: Mr. Heidtmann is The Suffolk Times’ Person of the Year for 2014.
For his part, Mr. Heidtmann told The Suffolk Times he’d merely been in the right place at the right time. But that humility minimizes the lengths to which he went to save his neighbor. A local mason, Mr. Heidtmann was stuck at home last Jan. 3 because of a blizzard that snowed in his job site. He’d gone outside to get firewood when he heard Mr. Frey’s cries for help.
He rushed down to the dock, wrapped his legs around a pole on the dock and pulled Mr. Frey out by his belt. He threw Mr. Frey over his shoulder and ran back up the snow-covered hill to Mr. Frey’s house, where he warmed him with blankets and towels as Southold EMTs rushed to the scene.
“It was a great save,” first responder Craig Goldsmith said at the time of the rescue. “Jeff definitely deserves to be recognized. If it wasn’t for him, we’d probably be doing a [body] recovery.”
Mr. Frey was hospitalized for weeks after the rescue, having escaped with no lasting injury to his frostbitten hands and feet. His body temperature had dropped far below normal, and even far below the point where hypothermia sets in.
Sitting comfortably in his home, a few hundred feet from where he nearly died, Mr. Frey says he still doesn’t remember the day he was saved. He remains astounded that Mr. Heidtmann was able to rescue him, 150 pounds of dead weight, from the frozen canal.
“Where did he ever get the strength to pull me out of the water?” Mr. Frey asked.
“It was just incredible,” Mr. Frey’s wife, Hildegarde, said. “It was really good of him, kind. He could have just gone about his business and not looked and it would have been the end.”
The incident may have robbed Mr. Frey of his short-term memory, as he seems to forget things around the house now and again. Still, he is grateful for his hero’s actions, even if he and the Heidtmanns still rarely talk.
“I must’ve been over three or four times,” he said.
After her husband got home from the hospital, Ms. Frey said, they bought a gift for the Heidtmanns: a night out at a local restaurant. But she says nothing they could ever do will be enough to express their gratitude.
“You can never pay back a life,” she said. “You really can’t.”
2010 — Scott Russell
2009 — Ryan Creighton
2008 — North Fork NJROTC
2007 — Maureen’s haven
2006 — Southold Town Animal Shelter
2005 — Ronnie Wacker
2004 — Josh Horton
2003 — Regina Maris Crew
2002 — Colin Van Tuyl
2001 — Frank LePré
2000 — Ellie Hall
1999 — Sister Margaret Smyth
1998 — Reverend Lynda Clements
1997 — Tim Caufield
1996 — Dr. Micah Kaplan
1995 — David Kappell
1994 — Bob Levy
1993 — Walter Dohm
1992 — Reverend Summers
1991 — Planning Conference
1990 — 350th Committee
1989 — Lynne Richards
1988 — Franklin Bear
1987 — Linda Graham