Wicked Local Northwest, Concord, Mass.
Mar. 27—Retired Waltham Fire Captain Robert Upham is quick to deflect attention from himself, and the events of Jan. 12, 1982.
Looking at a black and white photo of that day, he defers to others captured in the picture, not the image of him being carried from the Charles River to a waiting ambulance.
Upham points to the other firefighters in the photo: Capt. James Cincotta, now deceased, and Peter Stragas, now retired, however he was the one went into the water to rescue then 17-year-old Barry Russo who had fallen through the ice.
“These guys right here that are around me — they deserve just as much credit as I ever will … they didn’t get the glamour and the glory because they weren’t in the water but they contributed just as much,” he said. “And Jackie Shaughnessy was in the boat and basically shoved the ladder out to me and basically saved my life. I can’t say enough about them.”
Upham said the photo embodies a fire department’s camaraderie. It “shows the closeness of the people that you work with, and what they will do to help you,” he said.
The dramatic rescue included help from the WHDH Skyway Patrol helicopter, which was equipped with pontoons, and MDC Police “Officer Bill” Connell. Firefighters had launched a metal boat to make the rescue. But the boat got stuck in the ice.
“Upham, protected from the frozen surroundings only by his rubber boots and fire jacket, then climbed from the craft and inched his way along the ice toward the struggling youth,” wrote News-Tribune staff writer Jeffrey Mowers. “As Upham lunged toward Russo’s outreached hands, the ice gave way and the firefighter slipped into the water.”
Upham held the boy’s head above water for about fifteen minutes when the helicopter landed on the ice.
The helicopter lifted off with the boy, leaving Upham in the water.
“Bill Connell got out the helicopter door and between me pushing up and him pulling up, we were able to get him onto the pontoon and the helicopter,” he said.
Upham remembers firefighter Jackie Shaughnessy pushing a ladder out to him, allowing him to climb out of the water to the ice.
Upham was transported to the Waltham Hospital and treated for hypothermia. He was interviewed from his hospital bed by the major television news stations. The story also went out on the UPI wire, Upham said, and he heard from people in Chicago, Missouri, and South America.
Now, decades later, at the Waltham Fire Dept. headquarters, Capt. John Bonadio had firefighters from Rescue 1 inflate the newest rapid deployment craft—it takes 11 seconds to inflate—and firefighter Ricky Caruso put on a watertight Mustang survivor suit to show improved equipment in use.
In 1982, they had a metal boat, a bag of rope, and no survival suits.
“What we’re trying to do now is make it safer for rescuers and to make sure we can make the rescue,” Bonadio said. “If we can give them the tools that they need to be safer when they make those rescues, it’s going to be better for the overall objective of life saving.”
“Waltham rewind” is a recurring series by Art Illman, photographer for The MetroWest Daily News. This article is the third installment of the series that revisits his old photos from the Waltham News Tribune
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