An early cold spell gripped southern Maine in the late fall of 1961. Small, sheltered ponds hardened with a smooth, glassy surface.
It was an overcast sky on Sunday, December 10. Philip Loura, 14, and a group of teen boys mustered for the first ice skate of the season on the small man-made pond off Woodlawn Avenue in South Windham, known locally as “The Project.” Nearby, two young girls, 12-year old Kathy Smith and her cousin, 7-year old Doreen Nealey, were also enjoying the first skate of the season.
Loura said the ice was barely safe. But he and his friends knew the pond well. They recreated there year-round. And early ice meant they avoided one end of the pond because it was spring fed and unsafe.
|On May 23, 1963 - President John F. Kennedy presents the |
Young American Medal for Bravery to Philip Loura of South Windham.
At left, Attorney General Robert Kennedy,
to the President's right is Sen. Margaret Chase Smith
“It was just a day out on the ice – we were whipping each around and having fun,” said Loura. “Then we heard a scream.”
Apparently, young Doreen had fallen part-way through thin ice and was struggling to lift herself out. When Kathy skated over to help, the ice gave way beneath her too. Now both were in about seven feet of freezing water, hollering for help.
Loura was first to respond. “I knew the same thing could happen to me. They were about 15 feet from shore, so I skated like a mad-mother to the shore and started busting up the ice until I had an open water path out to where they were.”
Loura’s heavy jacket and skates were dragging him under as he reached Kathy.
“I’d go under and push her up, go under and push her up, again and again until I could stand up close to shore.” John True, 15, had entered the water to help. He grabbed hold of Kathy and pulled her up onto safe ground.
Loura, meanwhile, removed his jacket and skates. “I was real cold, but I was pumped up with adrenaline so I didn’t notice it.” He jumped back into the icy water and returned for Doreen, who by now had disappeared below the ice.
Loura’s cousin, Ron, started peering through the transparent ice near the hole where the girls had gone through. He spotted Doreen’s blue-green jacket under the ice and alerted Loura. She was just a few feet from the ice hole. Loura grabbed the edge of the ice hole with one hand and dunked.
Reaching as far as he could under the hardwater, he felt clothing. He surfaced clutching little Doreen, now limp in his arms. She had been under water for several minutes. Loura swam quickly back to shore, this time being able to keep both his own and the girl’s head above water.
Once on shore, it was obvious the little girl was unconscious and not breathing. Loura turned her onto her stomach and began administering artificial respiration. After several minutes, her breathing had not resumed.
John True suggested mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Loura said he didn’t know exactly how to do this but had seen it done on television. He and True alternated administering the technique.
“She started coughing up water into my mouth. It was mixed with food bits. Gross! But we just kept doing it until she was awake and breathing.” Said Loura.
Both girls were in shock, crying and dangerously cold when an ambulance arrived soon after the rescue. Later, they would be examined by a doctor at their homes. He said, despite what they’d been through, they were recovering nicely.
It was only after the frenetic rescue that Loura realized how cold he was. An old man who lived in a small shack near the pond invited him to warm up and dry out by his wood stove.
Almost immediately, newspaper reports and accolades started rolling in. Loura became a local hero – attention he was not used to.
|Philip Loura today with his awards|
Maine Governor John Reed recognized Loura with a special plaque. The Carnegie Foundation awarded him a medal for heroism. From the American Legion, another medal for heroism. And then, the crown jewel of tributes: the Young American Medal for Bravery, to be presented by the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
Portland Press Herald Washington correspondent May Craig reported it this way: “The Rose Garden ceremony in brilliant sunshine contrasted with the bleak winter day in December 1961 when Loura jumped into a South Windham pond to save two small girls from drowning.”
In attendance at the formal ceremony in May of 1963, in addition to the president, was Attorney General Robert Kennedy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Senators Margaret Chase Smith and Edmund Muskie and Representative Stanley Tupper. Robert Kennedy read the citation and recounted the story of Loura’s heroism.
“I heard about a tenth of it.” Loura remembers. “I was overwhelmed and intimidated. I was just trying to keep it all together. I was worried about standing right, not saying the wrong thing, not doing anything wrong – I couldn’t wait for it to be over.”
The President spoke first, “I see you have a couple of other medals,” noting Loura’s earlier medals pinned to his breast pocket. He pinned the newest one on Loura and shook hands with him. Loura managed to say, “Yes sir, thank you Mr. President,” and it was over.
While in Washington, accompanied by Harold Dyer of the Smith-Wagner Post American Legion of Gorham, Loura toured the White House, the Capitol, Washington D.C. and had dinner with Senator Edmund Muskie.
Decades after the dramatic rescue, Loura said he ran into one of the girls he had saved in a supermarket.
“She spotted me and asked, ‘Do you remember me’?” Loura confessed he did not. She responded, “I’ve got a lot to be thankful for, you saved my life.”
Now 58 years later, Loura was asked to reflect on the experience. He said simply, “How lucky it was to (have been) in the right place at the right time.”