Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Jorgensen, Ninth Coast Guard District Public Affairs
Edward Fillingham, a 75-year-old man suffering from Parkinson’s disease, didn’t have a plan when he sprung into action on a chilly day in April 2009 and rescued two men and a woman minutes away from drowning in a frigid harbor of Lake Ontario near his waterfront home. His selfless act has earned him numerous awards, the respect and admiration of response personnel, and now a U.S. Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving Medal.
Fillingham was at his Henderson Harbor, N.Y., home with his wife, Patricia, and daughter, Beth McMahon, when the trio first heard desperate cries for help from three people frantically struggling to climb on top of their capsized pedal boat about 500 yards from shore.
Patricia immediately dialed 911, but her husband knew they didn’t have much time in the 41-degree water.
“I couldn’t leave them out there,” said Fillingham. “They were terrified. I had to try something.”
McMahon fetched the family’s canoe for her father, who didn’t hesitate to jump in alone and paddle through the choppy harbor to the boaters.
Fillingham said he grew concerned as he approached the trio.
“I had no plan,” he said. “I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there.”
Even without a plan, he managed to guide the three of them to the sides of his canoe, where he instructed them to hold on as he clutched the woman with one hand and used his other hand to paddle back to shore, fearing that his own boat would capsize if they tried to climb in.
Fillingham was forced to stop on the way back in, once grabbing one of the men by the neck to keep him from sinking and several times to keep the woman afloat.
“I could feel her hand slipping away,” he said. “She wanted to give up. I kept telling her, ‘Don’t do that.’”
Fillingham eventually made it to shore where emergency medical technicians were waiting, and upon evaluating the men and woman, found that their core body temperatures had plummeted life-threateningly low to about 91 degrees F.
“That cold water almost did the job on them,” Fillingham said, adding that they couldn’t have survived much longer, and he’s sure they would have died if he had not been there.
Fillingham is still not sure how he mustered the strength to drag himself, a canoe and three soaking wet adults roughly 1,500 feet to safety, he said, but he believes a sudden rush of adrenaline may have given him the ability.
Coast Guardsmen at Station Oswego, N.Y., watched in awe as they listened to the details of Fillingham’s story during his award ceremony earlier this week.
“It’s not every day that you get to thank a hero,” said Rear Adm. Mike Parks, commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District, before presenting Fillingham with the Silver Lifesaving Medal.
But Fillingham said he doesn’t consider himself a hero and can’t believe how much attention and recognition he’s received as a result of his actions that day.
“I didn’t save them for rewards. The reward I got … I can call and talk to them tonight. That’s the reward I got.”