by Dennis Dalman
When Josh Johnson of Sartell fell through the ice, he struggled and screamed for help for 25 minutes until his strength gave out, and he sank under the icy water of Little Rock Lake near Rice.
He remembers, before he passed out, seeing the sandy bottom and thinking, “This is it; I’m going to die.”
Luckily for Johnson, two men had seen him go through the ice and called for help.
Shortly before 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 15, two good buddies – Shane Sabraski and Neil Maidl, both of Rice – were about to go hunting together. They ate a breakfast at Pine’s Edge Restaurant just off of Highway 10 south of Rice, then with Maidl behind the wheel, they drove on a residential road that goes by Little Rock Lake. The two men looked out and saw a man fishing by Rock Point on the southeast side of the lake. They were completely stunned because they knew how unsafe the ice probably was that day. They then drove down the road, further toward the lake because Sabraski wanted to take a cell-phone photo of the fisherman. He knew his friends would not believe it if he told them he and Maidl had actually seen a guy fishing on the lake.
But just as Sabraski was readying to take the photo, the man disappeared, having fallen through the thin sheet of ice.
The men immediately called 911, then they raced over to the public landing near Rock Point. The man was screaming for help, and the two friends’ adrenalin was rushing through their bodies as they were desperate to help the man. He was about 150 yards from shore, struggling to stay afloat. The three men yelled to one another. The man was hanging onto a 2 x 4 board, floating with the board. Maidl went to get a boat in a nearby neighbor’s yard. Then he drove back to the landing where Sabraski and a woman were there, frantically wondering how to help the unfortunate man. About then, the Rice chief of police arrived, and they all put the boat on the ice. They got in the boat, but the boat kept sinking through the sagging sheet of thin ice. Then they threw the boat’s anchor out into the water, then kept pulling on a long rescue rope to get close to the flailing fisherman. It was exhausting work and seemed to take forever, Maidl recalled later.
Then they yelled to the woman on shore, asking if her husband has a pair of ice cleats. She said yes, and then she hurried to her nearby home to get the cleats. Sabraski quickly put on the cleats. Maidl and Sabraski then walked on the fragile ice, pushing the boat ever more outward onto the lake. When they’d feel the layer of ice sinking, they’d quickly get back into the boat.
Meantime a DNR officer showed up and helped get the boat out to the scene of the crisis.
When they were about 30 feet from the man, he suddenly went under the water, leaving an eerie silence behind him. From the Rice Fire Department, also at the scene, the men got a gaffe hook. They retrieved the man’s floating wallet from the frigid water, then they kept running the gaffe across the bottom of the rather shallow lake. Fortunately, they finally hooked something – the man’s leg, and they managed to pull him up with the help of the gaffe. The man’s foot was the first part of his body to surface. With Sabraski hanging onto the feet, the men spun the victim over and grabbed his shoulders. Then they pulled a yellow rubber boat toward the scene and pulled the victim into it. By then there were quite a few people on shore. Using the long rope, they pulled the boat to shore across the watery ice.
They were sure the man was dead. He was ghostly white and had no pulse. On shore, first responders started resuscitation efforts, then he was quickly loaded into an ambulance for a ride to the St. Cloud Hospital. From there, a helicopter brought him to a Twin Cities hospital.
Later it was learned the fisherman’s name was Josh Johnson, 30, of Sartell, who owns a tree-trimming business, “Yard Guy’s Tree Care.” He and his wife, Beth, have two young children, Elizabeth, 8, and Connor, 3. A new baby is due this April.
At the hospital, emergency workers induced Johnson into a coma that lasted a week. Prospects for recovery appeared bleak. His wife was even told he probably would not make it.
“I did a lot of dreaming when I was in that coma,” Johnson recalled recently.
Elation reigned when Johnson pulled through. Eventually, he was released from the hospital. Tubes were recently removed from his gall bladder and pancreas, which had been infected from the lake water that he ingested and that almost killed him. Other than that and some physical therapy to strengthen some atrophied muscles, he’s doing just fine.
Once back home under the tender loving care of his family, he and his wife met the men who helped save him. Words failed them when they tried to express their heartfelt thanks. And now, the three men have become good acquaintances. In fact, one day they took Johnson out on the ice to the scene of the catastrophe. A Twin Cities TV news station did some filming that day for a story about the three guys.
“It didn’t faze me being at that site again,” Johnson said during a Feb. 2 interview with the Newsleader. “I’m not afraid of lakes. In fact I’m going fishing today up on Mille Lacs Lake.
Although Johnson has no fear of lakes, he has learned the importance of caution. All eager anglers should stay off of ice until an official “OK” is given by people who know and understand each lake.
“Definitely do not go out on the ice too early,” Johnson said. “I want to tell that to everybody.”
Johnson acknowledges he “trusted the ice too much.” He had been fishing at that same place a few days that week and even the night before his plunge into the lake.
“I thought I could trust that ice, but I was wrong,” he said. “I had that 2 x 4 board with me because I remembered my grandpa telling me a board like that could even my weight out on thin ice if I should get into trouble. I kept putting the board up onto the ice, but the ice kept breaking. That board helped but not enough.”
As for Maidl and Sabraski, they’re still happy about how Johnson survived so long under the water.
Both men have been fast friends “since we were in diapers,” as Maidl put it. They have been hunting and fishing pals their entire lives. Both work at Knife River in St. Cloud, Maidl as a concrete dump truck operator, Sabraski as a ready-mix truck driver.
The near disaster that brought together Johnson and his two life savers has developed into a bond.
“I think we’re definitely going to become good buddies,” Johnson said.
His two new friends agree. A near-death experience and a dramatic rescue from an icy lake are powerful bonds for friendship.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.