Fisherman Pulled from Diversey Harbor

Chuck Wahtola yelled name of off-duty firefighter he'd met just minutes before falling into icy waters

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    NEWSLETTERS

    It was supposed to be a relaxing day fishing. Instead, Chuck Wahtola wound up in a hospital bed after being pulled from the icy waters of Diversey Harbor on Wednesday evening. (Published Thursday, Jan 5, 2012)

    It was supposed to be a relaxing day fishing. Instead, Chuck Wahtola wound up in a hospital bed after being pulled from the icy waters of Diversey Harbor on Wednesday evening.

    "I've got two artificial knees, two artificial shoulders and two artificial hips. I just could not pull myself out," he said.

    Moments before the 67-year-old's chair fell from under him, putting him in the water, Wahtola shared casting tales with another fisherman, Billy Miller, who turned out to be an off-duty Chicago firefighter.

    Miller said he was fishing off a nearby pier when he heard his name being shouted.

    The six-year veteran of the department ran to Wahtola, laid on the dock and held his head above water with one hand as he reached in the pocket of his thermal overalls with the other to grab his new iPhone.

    "I knew I couldn’t get him out by myself," Miller said. "When you’ve got a guy that big in the water, you need an army to get him out," said Miller. 

    He said he estimated Wahtola, with water-logged clothes, weighed in excess of 400 pounds.

    But Miller couldn’t remember how to get the proper screen on his iPhone to dial 911, so he called his firehouse instead -- listed as "Engine 42" on speed dial -- which he knew had specially trained divers ready to go.

    By the time his comrades arrived more than 15 minutes later, Wahtola's face was turning blue, he said.

    Two divers jumped in and with help of eight men on the pier, including cops and firefighters, rescuers were able to secure Wahtola's waist and arms with line and haul him from the water.

    "We took his wet boots off and we took off his wet jacket and left his pants on and covered him in blankets and towels," Miller said.

    Wahtola, a Colorado transplant now living on the city's north side, was transferred to St. Joseph Hospital where he was initially listed in critical condition.

    But late Wednesday he was alert and appeared to be making a speedy recovery. And he had a message for his hero.

    "I'm glad you were there. I look forward to fishing with you again sometime. Thanks for saving my life," he said.