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updated: 7/30/2014 11:04 AM

Boy meets Coast Guard crew who saved him on Lake Michigan

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  • Video: Boy Meets His Rescuers

  • Tommy Alter, 9, of Highland Park is hugged by his mother, Leslie, during a reunion with his Coast Guard rescuers Tuesday. Nearby is Lt. Dan Schrader, the pilot of the mission.

       Tommy Alter, 9, of Highland Park is hugged by his mother, Leslie, during a reunion with his Coast Guard rescuers Tuesday. Nearby is Lt. Dan Schrader, the pilot of the mission.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Tommy Alter is joined by his parents, Jay and Leslie Alter, Tuesday.

       Tommy Alter is joined by his parents, Jay and Leslie Alter, Tuesday.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Tommy Alter peers inside the Dolphin helicopter, the one that was used to rescue him, his aunt and cousin July 11 in Door County, Wisconsin.

       Tommy Alter peers inside the Dolphin helicopter, the one that was used to rescue him, his aunt and cousin July 11 in Door County, Wisconsin.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • "He's a brave little man," dad Jay Alter said.

       "He's a brave little man," dad Jay Alter said.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Tommy Alter, 9, of Highland Park is joined by Coast Guard Lt. Dan Schrader and Kris Filion, the flight mechanic, at the Wheeling airport Tuesday.

       Tommy Alter, 9, of Highland Park is joined by Coast Guard Lt. Dan Schrader and Kris Filion, the flight mechanic, at the Wheeling airport Tuesday.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Tommy Alter shows off his toy helicopter to Lt. Dan Schrader, left, Derek Johnson, Kris Filion and Shad Soldano, far right.

       Tommy Alter shows off his toy helicopter to Lt. Dan Schrader, left, Derek Johnson, Kris Filion and Shad Soldano, far right.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • A Dolphin helicopter hovers over Tommy Alter, his cousin and aunt, who were left stranded on kayaks near Whaleback Shoal in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

      A Dolphin helicopter hovers over Tommy Alter, his cousin and aunt, who were left stranded on kayaks near Whaleback Shoal in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
    Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

  • Tommy Alter and his cousin Zachary Suri, moments after being rescued by the Coast Guard earlier this month.

      Tommy Alter and his cousin Zachary Suri, moments after being rescued by the Coast Guard earlier this month.
    Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

 
 

Tommy Alter never let go of his mom's hand on the walk across the tarmac.

The 9-year-old Highland Park boy shied away from all the cameras.

And he politely turned down an offer to step inside the helicopter -- the same one that carried him away from a roughly 20-hour ordeal earlier this month on Lake Michigan.

But one on one with his rescuers? And "scuba man?"

Tommy smiled. A lot.

"You were a trouper," said Kris Filion, the mission's flight mechanic.

The four-person Coast Guard crew made sure to put a shy Tommy at ease during a reunion Tuesday at the Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling.

"That's pretty much how we do it," said pilot Dan Schrader, admiring Tommy's toy helicopter.

"I'm digging the shoes, bro," said Filion, gesturing to Tommy's nautical pair.

And then the group stepped over to the rescue basket -- the same one that lifted Tommy from a kayak that had veered 10 miles off course in Door County, Wisconsin.

There, next to the contraption, Leslie Alter hugged her son.

"He's a brave little man," dad Jay Alter said.

Tommy, his 9-year-old cousin and his aunt rented kayaks July 10. Tommy's older sister and other relatives had kayaked the same waters near Peninsula State Park earlier during the family vacation.

When the three didn't make it back by 4 p.m., employees at the rental business called 911.

Crews searched through the night and turned up nothing. The water temperature was a chilly 55 degrees.

Derek Johnson was sleeping at home when he got the call about 3 a.m. July 11.

He was two years out of the Coast Guard Academy as a rescue swimmer based in Traverse City, Michigan. But he still hadn't logged a "live hoist," making him the butt of playful jokes from veterans.

"We kind of bust on each other. Everyone wants to get their rescue, especially in Traverse City," Johnson said. "It's a little more mild. It's not a big search-and-rescue unit.

"We don't want them to happen, but it's also what we train for. We're glad to do our jobs."

At sunrise, Johnson and three others took off aboard a Dolphin rescue helicopter, combing the waters for any signs of the boys and the woman.

By the time the Dolphin was in the air, the Coast Guard had contacted the Royal Canadian Air Force for a special plane equipped with infrared sensors -- devices that could pick up body heat below.

The Canadian Hercules C-130 spotted the three the morning of July 11 -- about a mile away from the Coast Guard helicopter.

The crew faced a new challenge: how to hover without tipping the kayaks over or separating Tommy, who was lying down in one, and his aunt and cousin, sitting up in the other.

"That rotor wash is pretty powerful," Filion said.

He was the eyes and ears for Schrader, who manned the controls, and command pilot Shad Soldano. From the cockpit, Schrader and Soldano couldn't see much of the rescue going on underneath the copter.

"I have to paint a visual picture for them and talk to them where we need to be," Filion said. "That's amazingly hard."

In full-body gear, Johnson -- whom Tommy dubbed "scuba man" -- jumped into the water. He swam over to the three and checked on their condition.

They were pale, a tad blue in the face and tired -- signs of mild hypothermia. One by one, Johnson secured each into the basket. Tommy was first.

"I remember you using your feet to help (Johnson) paddle," Schrader said. "That was a big help, so thank you for doing that."

The crew landed at the Menominee, Michigan, airport, and the survivors were treated at a nearby hospital.

Schrader credited the aunt's quick thinking to tether the two kayaks together. She also kept the boys, wearing life jackets, firmly seated in the kayaks and out of the water.

"Most of the cases up here in the Great Lakes don't turn out so well because the water's so cold," Soldano said. "They set themselves up for success."

But Coast Guard officials pointed out the group had nothing to communicate with emergency responders and recommended boaters carry a personal locator beacon, a handheld device that can send GPS coordinates to a satellite. Most cellphones lose the signal a mile from shore.

Since his rescue, Tommy tinkered with his Legos and built a whole fleet of toy helicopters, his way of processing the mishap, his mom says.

Tommy brought along a Lego helicopter, stamped with the Coast Guard's emblem, for the reunion with the crew. His family treated all four members of the Coast Guard to a late lunch of Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

"Thank you so much," Leslie Alter said.

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