Remembering the 1953 Christmas Tragedy

From Steve Belau

You are public servants like we are, and actually more important to a functioning fire department than the rest of us, as without your support and guidance, there would be no fire department.  Hence we share this note with you.
Although we take pause to remember the 1953 tragedy, we still celebrate the Season and count the many blessings bestowed upon each of us.  Thanks to you for all you do for the Citizens.


As has become our custom, a wreath has been placed at the Firefighter’s Memorial at the north end of Silver Lake.  The purpose of the wreath is to remember and honor the valor and courage of the Members of the fire department who sacrificed themselves hoping to save a drowning boy on Christmas Eve 1953.

So as to always remember, the story of the rescue attempt of nine year old John Paul Stephenson adapted from the Department’s History Book is told again:

The first out engine was called “Squad 1”.  It was staffed by five firefighters-George Davis the captain, Ambrose Riley the motor operator, Stanley O’Brien, Charlie Hayes and Lyle Gardner firefighters.  The three firefighters rode the tailboard of the engine.

Squad One saw the child out in the water within 200 feet of the north shore.  He was struggling to stay afloat and trying to get back up on the edge of the ice.  The hypothermia that comes with cold water immersion was already affecting him.

The turnout gear of the day was a fiberglass Mine Safety Appliances black helmet, a heavy weight cotton duck canvas-like turn out coat with a thick wool liner, and thigh-high black rubber firefighter’s boots.

Riley and O’Brien using the era’s best techniques and equipment grabbed a 14′ roof ladder and a pike pole. Hayes grabbed a rope while the other two brought the 24′ extension ladder.

O’Brien slid the ladder out on the ice ahead of himself to distribute his weight across the ice.  Upon reaching the open water with the tip, he moved out to hook the child’s clothing with the pike pole.

Riley joined O’Brien on the ladder, but the additional weight caused the ladder and firefighters to break through the ice, plunging them into the icy water.

Davis, Gardner, and Hayes tried to get to the three trapped in the water by using the extension ladder on the ice.  The ice had no stability and all three of these rescuers broke through the ice into waist deep water. Hayes tried a number of times to throw the 1″ diameter hemp rescue rope to Riley and O’Brien, but the water logged rope was too heavy to fly.  They tried repeatedly to get to Riley and O’Brien.  These three also would have perished had they not been ordered out of the water and pulled into a boat.

Neighbors and other rescuers took boats and a canoe from nearby homes and started working their way out to the open water.  Movement was agonizingly slow as the boats and canoe had to fight the ice to make forward progress.

Riley and O’Brien tried to keep the child on a piece of wood that was floating in the open water, but the child was rapidly losing consciousness.  The cold water was taking its toll on Riley and O’Brien at the same time their heavy turnout gear made all the heavier after soaking up many times its weight in water.  The weight of their gear was consuming every bit of energy they had to keep their heads above water.

By the time rescuers made it to the open water, Riley, O’Brien and the child had slipped below the surface. The firefighters were pulled from the water within twenty minutes and the boy was found forty five minutes later.  Despite heroic resuscitation efforts, all three perished.

We mourn the loss of the Members and the sorrow of their families.  We honor their ultimate sacrifice and we revere their valor, bravery, and courage.

We recognize that our duty as firefighters is inherently dangerous, and despite our best efforts to make it safer, the duty will never be without peril.  Save the savable and reconcile within yourself that not all are.

Never forget your origins and what we stand for.  Remember those that have gone before us and teach well those that will follow us.  You are Members of a special calling.  As servants of the people, serve vigilantly and faithfully.

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