Alexander Chung ’21 has been a competitive swimmer for years, and was a lifeguard in his hometown of Rockville, Maryland, before arriving at Cornell.
But until March 10, he’d never had to save someone from drowning.
That all changed on a balmy Wednesday afternoon at Taughannock Falls State Park, about seven miles north of Ithaca, when Chung and fellow students Anjan Mani ’23 and Felipe Santamaria ’23 helped rescue a 62-year-old man who’d fallen into the 40-degree water while fishing off a pier with his two grandsons.
“I just hope that the man that fell in is doing well now,” Chung said, “and I want to thank everyone who was there for helping us.”
The man, who was not identified, was taken by Trumansburg ambulance to the Emergency Department at Cayuga Medical Center for evaluation, and later released.
Chung is a biology and society major in the College of Arts and Sciences; Mani, from Chennai, India, is an applied economics and management major in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business; and Santamaria, from New York City, is a mechanical engineering major in the College of Engineering.
Shortly after 1 p.m. on an unseasonably warm late-winter day, Chung and some friends were enjoying a picnic at the park, just south of the village of Trumansburg. Mani and Santamaria were part of a separate group; Cornell students had March 9-10 off for Wellness Days.
Chung said he and his friends were eating when another young person came running from the water’s edge to say that a man had fallen into the water.
“We rushed over,” Chung said, “and there were already the two other people (Mani and Santamaria) who were trying to pull the man up the ladder by the dock.”
Mani said that when he and Santamaria got to the end of the pier, they saw the man holding onto to the ladder along the face of the pier. “Once I saw the guy, we started taking off our shoes and hats,” Santamaria said. “And I went down the ladder [and into the water] and Anjan stayed on top and reached his arms down to grab him.”
Lt. Jason Marchenkoff, Finger Lakes zone commander with the New York State Park Police, arrived on scene just as the students began their rescue efforts.
The man – a “reasonably big guy” who was wearing several layers, Mani said – was weakened from having been in the water for several minutes, Chung said, and after five minutes of trying, the students were unable to get the man onto the ladder. The water is too deep in that area to stand up in, Chung said.
In the time that Santamaria tried desperately to get the man onto the ladder, he started losing strength himself.
“At one point, when I tried to pull him and myself up, I fell in completely,” Santamaria said. “And then I was kind of in the same position that he was in. … And he said something like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about me, save yourself first.’ That really scared me.
“I was trying to push his legs up onto the ladder,” Santamaria said, “but he kept saying, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t.’”
At that point, Santamaria was directed around the pier and swam to shore, while Mani and Chung went in, grabbed the man’s arms and swam him to safety.
Mani admitted that the water was colder than he’d imagined it would be. “It was about a minute before I could talk, before I could start helping the man,” he said. “I was just trying to keep my head above water.”
Chung said the man was “pretty responsive and was able to clearly communicate” even while they were pulling him to shore. And Mani said that while he was dealing with the extreme cold, “The man was saying, ‘How are you guys doing? Are you students? What’s going on with you?’ He was calming me down a lot; he was such a nice guy.”
Chung said he and his friends stayed at the park for an extra 15 to 20 minutes before leaving, and noted that the ambulance hadn’t rushed off, which he took as a good sign. “We thought he was in stable condition,” Chung said.
Mani said that after the incident, he “felt so grateful to have been able to help someone in that way, particularly during what’s been such a trying year.”
A strong and experienced swimmer, Chung said he had no hesitation when he realized the man wouldn’t be able to climb out of the icy water and onto the dock.
“I’ve been a swimmer for 15 years,” he said, “so I didn’t hesitate to jump in. I knew there weren’t any other reasonable options, but I braced myself for how cold the water would be before jumping in. It was by far the coldest water I have ever been in.”
Marchenkoff said he plans on submitting the students’ heroics to the state for formal recognition.