Dave Mack and Jim Hornby were ice fishing for panfish on a Mississippi River backwater in La Crosse on an unseasonably warm day in February 2017.
Before calling it a day, Hornby suggested they drill one more hole, so Mack turned to get the auger and heard a gasp.
“I turned around, and Jim was in the water, hanging onto the ice,” said Mack, 69. “I dropped the auger, got down on my stomach, crawled over to Jim and pulled him out.”
Wanting his friend’s efforts to be recognized, Hornby, 71, nominated Mack to be an American Red Cross Hero, and he was selected as the 2018 Adult Good Samaritan.
“As a former WSI (water safety instructor) teacher, I have taught many students water rescue techniques, including ice rescue in my Red Cross classes,” Hornby wrote in his nomination of Mack. “Dave also learned how to assist others in need, and because of that, I am here today.”
Mack, of Black River Falls, is one of eight people who will be recognized Wednesday by the Northwest Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross’ annual Heroes Breakfast, an event that honors people who have shown courage, kindness and unselfish character when a friend, family member or stranger has faced a life-threatening situation or who have had an extraordinary impact on the community.
“When I hit the water (that day), it was instant cold, and I needed to get out,” said Hornby, who also lives in Black River Falls. “I was real glad Dave was there and pulled me out — even though, he put his own life in peril crawling out there.”
Mack shrugs off his friend and former co-worker’s praise. (The pair used to teach in the Black River Falls school district; Hornby taught physical education and was the head wrestling and track and field coach; and Mack taught math. For the past 10 years, Mack has taught for Western Technical College.)
“When someone needs help, you just do what anybody would have done,” said Mack, who did just that more than 50 years earlier.
Back then, Mack and his father, Leo, were fishing on a lake in Wisconsin that wasn’t entirely frozen.
“There was some thin ice,” Mack recalled, “and a guy was sitting close to it, and all of a sudden, the ice started to go out from under him and in he went.”
Mack and his dad crawled out on the ice, and the elder Mack pulled the man out as the younger Mack held onto his father’s feet.
As an adult, Mack, who has been ice fishing since he was 4 or 5, normally keeps spikes and a piece of rope in his coat pocket, but that day, it was so nice out, so he left his coat on the sled he and Hornby used to pull their gear.
In the area the men were fishing, there were 12 to 16 inches of ice, “but obviously not in that spot,” Mack said. “I’m sure we walked within a foot of where Jim went in several times that day.”
Where Hornby went in, there was 35 or 40 feet of water with plenty of current, said Mack, who found out later from friends there are some springs in the area.
“If he would have went under the ice, there wouldn’t have been anything I could have done,” Mack said.
Once out of the water, Hornby headed for the truck and got out of his wet clothes while Mack grabbed their gear. Hornby later learned he suffered several nondisplaced rib fractures.
The incident hasn’t kept either man off the ice. Hornby, who calls himself a “tag-along” because he doesn’t have the major equipment, has been ice fishing once. Mack also has been out, and he now has a coat that will float him if he’d happen to fall through the ice.
“Who knows what would have happened to me if Dave hadn’t reacted so quickly,” Hornby said in his nomination of Mack.
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