Rescuer Cris Baitx, using first his fists, then his head, had twice punched his way out of the ice on Convict Lake and was going under for a third time.
Panicked, he was drifting in and out of consciousness in the frigid waters where three teen-age boys had already disappeared and four other men struggled to stay afloat.
“I was sure I was gone,” Baitx told The Times on Tuesday. “I was thinking of my wife and kids and are they going to be OK, because I’m history.”
He was wrong. Baitx survived after a dramatic rescue that punctuated an otherwise grim drama on Convict Lake, in which seven people drowned.
What began as a frantic effort to save three drowning youths and their two counselors deteriorated into a perilous struggle by rescuers to save each other. In interviews with volunteers who participated and with eyewitnesses, the following account of Monday’s events emerged:
The first word of trouble came about noon on Monday. A group of 12 teen-agers from the area’s Camp O’Neal, a residential facility for troubled youth, along with two of their counselors, were on a holiday outing at the lake. Hiking across thin ice, at least four teen-agers and both adults fell into the water.
Frightened youngsters rushed to the nearby home of Clay Cutter, an employee of the U.S. Forest Service. They pounded on Cutter’s door, crying for help. Cutter instructed his wife to call 911, and he rushed to the lake.
“The kids were hysterical,” said a 31-year-old maintenance worker from the Convict Lake resort who witnessed the tragedy. “Their friends were under there. They saw them dying.”
Steadily but carefully, Cutter made his way on hands and knees toward the center of the lake. One unidentified teen-ager had pulled himself out but the other three youngsters had apparently already drowned; they were no longer in sight.
Cutter was able to reach the two counselors, closer in--their heads bobbing, their arms thrashing. Perched precariously on the edge of the ice, he managed to put a rope around each man while talking to them continuously to keep them calm.
Meanwhile, summoned by their beepers, members of the Long Valley Volunteer Fire Department hurried down a winding road, past tall snowdrifts, to the lake. Cutter and some of the other teen-agers in the outing were on the dangerously thin ice; a small crowd was starting to line the lake shore.
The rescuers had been thrust into a crisis for which they were ill-equipped.
Baitx, who is chief of the Fire Department, and Ray Turner, a captain, grabbed an aluminum flat-bottom boat and pushed it out over the ice. Suddenly, the ice broke under Turner and he fell into the water. Baitx pulled Turner back into the boat.
With a metal ladder stretched out in front of him like a sled, Baitx edged himself slowly out over the ice toward the victims. He reached one of the counselors, known to the rescuers as “Grandpa,” and started to hoist the man to safety.
Suddenly, the ice collapsed beneath them and Baitx fell into the water alongside Grandpa. Baitx, recalling the accident Tuesday from his home in Mammoth Lakes, said he found himself trapped under ice and tangled in the ladder.
At this moment, volunteer fireman Vidar Anderson reached the lake and, using two ladders for better weight distribution--one lengthwise on each side of his body--shimmied on hands and knees toward where Baitx had fallen.
Anderson grabbed Baitx--but the ice cracked again and both men plunged into the water.
“At that point, I went down again,” Baitx recalled. “I head-butted the ice and busted through.”
Baitx would go down a third time before being rescued; Anderson, 58, would not be seen again.
Cutter, too, was having difficulties. As he struggled to assist the counselors, he had slipped and fallen into the water.
“We would see a head above water, then you didn’t see that head,” said one of a score of horrified spectators--including Cutter’s wife--who watched the operations from the lake shore. “There would be two heads, then one. Then no one. You knew what was going on.”
By this time, Russ Veenker, a diver for the June Lake Mountain Rescue Team, had arrived. He saw the three men at the opening in the lake where the counselors had fallen, about 450 feet from shore. Pulling a rubber raft behind him, he delicately walked onto the ice, past where Turner sat in the flatboat.
The ice cracked under Veenker’s footsteps.
Fifty feet from shore, Veenker lay prone on the fracturing ice and pulled himself along a rope that had been stretched from a dozen volunteer rescuers on the shore to the ladder in which Baitx had become entangled.
Veenker said he then felt the rope being tugged toward shore by the rescuers lining the lake.
“Halfway there, I heard panic, commotion and yelling, and felt the rope being pulled toward shore,” Veenker said. “I knew the whole thing was going wrong.”
Veenker, alarmed, saw Baitx being pulled under the ice toward him, his face scraping against the ice. Two other men seemed to be swimming behind him.
“Then one was suddenly gone,” Veenker said. “The other guy was bobbing up and down and gasping, six feet way from me. I exhorted him to come toward me. He bobbed five or six times, then he went down.”
Veenker dived under the surface of the water to try to untangle Baitx from the ladder but he failed. He swam under Baitx, put him on top of his chest and tried to calm him. Baitx was suffering from hypothermia and was blacking out.
“His arms were useless,” Veenker said, adding that he could not free Baitx from the ladder.
“I prayed at that point. I had no way to free him.”
Luckily, two more rescuers then approached in a second rubber raft, and they were able to free Baitx from the ladder.
But it was too late for Cutter, Anderson and the two counselors. They had lost the battle to stay alive.
“They kind of lost (Cutter) right at the last,” said Remington Slifka, general manager for the Convict Lake resort, who watched the futile rescue. “The diver said he thought he had him, that he really tried to hang on, but he was gone.”