The typical evening before the Grand Parade and Irish Fest in downtown New London was far from ordinary Friday, March 20.
Traffic was bustling with residents and visitors alike. Local pubs and tavern’s were full of patrons looking for a sampling of green beer and corned beef and cabbage.
Shamrock Club members scurried about town to make last minute preparations for the largest parade in Wisconsin, set to take place the next day.
Street barricades were staged near their respective intersections, temporary no parking signs placed up, portable restrooms set out, and the big tent was ready to go before sundown.
Locals were also watching the Wolf River and its ice flows, anticipating the official “Ice Out” time.
For the past 40 years or more, the New London Fish and Game Club places two manikins named Pete and Joe in a boat out on the ice. A string is tied to their boat then strung to a clock on shore that records the official “ice out” time.
On Friday, many portions of the river were already open and ice chunks were floating, however for locals the official “ice out” time is when Pete and Joe float free. The sandbar where they are placed is usually one of the last places to float away. When it does, this signals the river is ready for navigation, and the start of the infamous walleye run begins.
Around 6:40 p.m. Friday evening, motorist and pedestrians in downtown New London witnessed an unusual site floating down the river. This time it was not “Pete and Joe.”
A young man wearing black jeans, and a black t-shirt was standing on an ice chunk floating down the middle of the river.
Within moments, sirens could be heard and patrons from inside the downtown businesses flocked outside to see what the commotion was.
Folks were recording the event on their smart phones and posting messages on Facebook immediately upon seeing the incident. Nine-one-one calls were also made to authorities.
Karl Kanaman, a life-long resident of New London and property owner on the Wolf River was sitting in his living room on the computer when a Facebook message appeared on his screen from his brother Bill. Karl called him back right away.
“He told me what was going on, and at first I didn’t believe him,” said Kanaman. “I walked outside and looked up river and sure enough I could see it was real.”
Kanaman could see the young man’s silhouette standing on an ice chunk in the middle of the river.
“I thought, I gotta go,” said Kanaman. His boat was tied up behind his house.
Kanaman lives across from Riverside Park in New London, about a half mile downriver from the Shawano Street Bridge, where he could see the action taking place.
His wife Mary Kanaman, said from that point on, “I could just see the adrenaline take over in his eyes.”
Kanaman ran to the boat and proceeded up stream navigating around hundreds of floating ice hunks.
Up-river from the bridge, New London High School Agro-science teacher Dr. Gary Lake was standing in his main street store “Snax-n-Yaks,” when he looked out the back window and saw the young man float past on the ice.
He sprang into action and scrambled about his store looking for tools that might help in a rescue.
Lake grabbed two life jackets, a paddle and his blue kayak and rushed to the steps behind Bult’s Bakery where he launched the vessel.
“I’m a pretty strong paddler and I thought that If could get to him, I would give him the life jacket, and then just sort of slowly steer the ice berg towards shore by paddling,” said Lake.
Dr. Lake knew that if the young man went into the icy water it would be disastrous. “I just kept paddling,” he said.
Kanaman thought the same as he raced up river in his t-shirt and pajama bottoms.
Kanaman could see two New London Firemen in ice rescue suits swimming through the intense current towards the young man. Other firefighters and police attempted to lower a life jacket down to the stranded youth. He put the jacket on but did not untie the rope. A few suspenseful moments later, he removed the jacket before the rope would pull him off the iceberg.
Nearby, Fire Captain Don Connat and others were also preparing a small fishing boat underneath the bridge to deploy. During the duration of the rescue, dozens of onlookers continued taking video clips with their phones. The Press-Star deployed a video camera in Taft Park to cover the incident. The entire scene was captured on their video. By Saturday, March 21, the eight minute long video reached YouTube and went viral.
The young man at first appeared to remain calm and even said hello to a few onlookers as his ice chunk floated swiftly down the current towards the Shawano Street Bridge.
He held onto two sticks and occasionally attempted to use them unsuccessfully as paddles. He could not reach shore. The scene escalated as the sounds of sirens filled downtown, and rescue teams from the New London Fire Department diverged to the scene.
The gathering crowd on shore swelled, and activity over the bridge increased adding even more adrenaline to the scene.
Kanaman, Connat, Lake, and the two rescue swimmers arrived within moments of each other.
Both swimmers were exhausted from struggling in the current. They were first to arrive to the iceberg. They instructed the young man to lie down on the sled.
Next Kanaman and Connat arrived with the boats.
Kanaman helped bring the young man into the boat first and then both firefighters.
“You could just tell, they had their fill,” said Kanaman. “They were cold and exhausted.”
The young man was safe and not injured in the incident.
“As we went to shore I just looked at him and asked, “What were you thinking?,” said Kanaman. The 18-year-old did not respond.
The young man later told police officers that he had stepped onto the ice up river when it floated away from shore in the strong current.
By late Saturday afternoon, the video had received 11,000 hits. Over the course of the weekend, several local television stations and NBC News in Milwaukee picked-up on the story. Many sent crews to New London and aired clips on Sunday. By Monday afternoon, CNN requested permission to use the video in their news platforms worldwide.
Kanaman avoided the networks throughout the weekend, but came home from work on Monday to find one crew waiting in his driveway.
“I don’t want any attention,” he said. “I’m not some hero. I am just someone that acted, that’s all. It could have been anyone. When you live on the river, helping people is just something that you do.”
To view clips of the rescue video go to http://192.168.50.38/.