Plucked from the ice

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Frantic fight for life comes with a happy ending for three boys, families

By Damon Lawrence

Neil Crass hadn’t used the boat he purchased last year.

“I bought it to duck hunt in and had never gotten to take it out,” he said. “About two weeks ago I was thinking, why in the world did I buy this boat?”

He’s not asking any more.

Crass, his son, Hunter, and Blair Volunteer firefighter Larry Sather used the boat Saturday to rescue three boys who had fallen into the Emory River.

The incident began around noon on Saturday in the area of 161 Lakewood Estates Lane.

According to a Roane County Sheriff’s Office report, four boys were playing on the icy river trying to touch a buoy.

The ice broke and three fell in; the fourth went to shore for help.

“They were about 75 yards from the bank,” Blair Volunteer Fire Department Chief Clarence Nelson said.

Blair VFD was among several agencies that responded.

“Just thank the good Lord that buoy was there,” Nelson said. “All three of them was hanging on to it.”

Crass, who lives on Clax Gap Road, said someone called his daughters to request prayer for the stranded boys.

“The girls got off the phone, and said, ‘Daddy can you go help them?’” Crass recalled. “My son and I were here, so I told him to get his boots on and let’s go.”

Crass said they tried to launch the boat at a nearby ramp, but the ice was too thick.

“Looking back, we know what God’s purpose for that was,” he said. “If we had put the boat in at that boat ramp, it would have taken us too long.”

They drove to the scene instead.

“The whole time we tried to stay really focused because when we got there, there was mommies and daddies and grandparents screaming and standing on the edge of the river bank,” Crass said. “One of the mothers had grabbed an inner tube to try to go out there to get them, and they had to pull her back.”

Crass said the emergency responders were doing everything they could, but were unsuccessful in reaching the boys.

“We picked the boat up, motor and all, off the trailer and carried it to where the rescue squad had broken ice around the river bed there,” he said.

“My son got up front, and we went where Mr. Sather had already broken some ice about 30 or 40 feet out. We got him in the boat with us and then we began to make our way to the buoy.”

Crass said the boys encoouraged each other to hang on until help arrived. They were clinging to the buoy when the rescuers got there.

“The look in their eyes — they were just scared to death,” he said. “We actually had to pry their fingers off of the buoy, because they wouldn’t let go.”

The boys were brought ashore and flown by Lifestar to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.

Jimmy Anderson, father of one of the boys, said all three were released Sunday.

“It was a sight to see,” he said. “They’re all doing good. My son’s back at school.”

Nelson said the boys were in the water for over an hour.

Anderson’s 13-year-old son Sheldon was among the rescued. He said his son’s body temperature got down to 82 degrees.

“They got it up to about 97 Saturday evening at the hospital,” he said. “Early Sunday morning about 1:30 they took the breathing tube out of him.”

“It’s a blessing from God,” Anderson said.

Crass, the pastor of Big Emory Baptist Church, also believes a higher power was involved.

“It’s just absolutely amazing what God did to make all this happen,” he said.

Three days before, Crass said, he was in his garage and decided to charge the battery on his boat.

“It just so happened the battery to start the boat was fully charged and ready to go when we picked it up,” he said.

Crass said if the time of his daughter’s cheerleading competition hadn’t been changed, he wouldn’t have been home on Saturday when the call came in.

Hunter’s physical strength also came into play. A former football player for Harriman High School, he signed with Maryville College in 2012 and now attends Roane State.

“He’s in extremely good shape,” Crass said. “I believe God knew that I needed him here to help me get the boat out and help me get it over there.”

Crass said they don’t feel like heroes.

“We just feel like God used us, and we’re grateful that we can be used,” he said. “There was so many people that prayed and reached out and did everything they could.”

Crass said the effort shows what community is all about.

“Nobody cared if those boys were black or white,” he said. “Nobody cared if those boys had anything to give or not give. They didn’t care about where their families came from. All they cared about was getting to those little boys and saving their lives.”