Chuck Herndon’s wife yelled at him to take a life jacket, but there wasn’t time for that. A plane had gone down in Lake Erie and there wasn’t anyone else around to help.
Thanks to Herndon’s quick action, 7-year-old Joel Hutchison is alive today.
“I figured I was alright,” Herndon told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira during an appearance on the program Wednesday. “I’m a good swimmer and it was only about a mile away.”
Herndon, an artist and retired college professor, and his wife had been on the beach of Kelleys Island, a local Lake Erie resort east of Toledo and about 80 miles west of Cleveland.
The couple had watched the lights of an airplane taking off from a small airstrip on the island. Instead of climbing toward the mainland, the lights arced toward the water and disappeared. Herndon didn’t hear an explosion, but his instincts told him something was wrong.
On board the plane, a Cessna 172C Skyhawk, were Jeff Hutchison, 46, a farmer from Lima, Ohio, and his two sons, Jeremy, 9, and Joel. They were heading home on a 90-mile flight after a day on the island.
Herndon sent his wife inside his mother’s home, where they were visiting, and ran to a small, aluminum rowboat. It was about 9:30 p.m., and it was inky black, but Herndon pushed the boat into the water even though he had neither life vest nor a flashlight.
Guessing about the direction in which to row, Herndon told Vieira he initially rowed in the wrong direction. “I got away from the island. it was very quiet at that time. Then I heard a faint cry in the distance – ‘Help!’ I called out, ‘I’m coming, I’m coming. Keep screaming,’ " Herndon said.
He rowed for nearly 15 minutes toward the voice, which kept calling out every 20 seconds or so. Occasionally, the voice would go silent for what seemed like forever, and Herndon thought he would be too late, but then it would come back.
“All of a sudden, his hands were gripping the rail of the boat,” Herndon said. “To that extent, he saved himself.”
Herndon was amazed that a 7-year-old had been able to stay afloat so long in the chilly waters of the lake after a plane crash. He gathered the boy into the little boat, pulled him close to keep him warm, and set out back to shore.
“He said, ‘My father’s been killed in an airplane crash. My brother’s been killed in an airplane crash. They were very bloody and the plane went down,’ " Herndon said.
God by his side?As they rowed to shore, Joel talked some more. “The boy asked me if I was a Christian,” Herndon said. “He said he was a Christian. He said that maybe because he was a Christian, that I was there for him to save him.”
Once on shore and tucked into an ambulance that had arrived in response to his wife’s call, Herndon noticed cuts and marks on Joel’s body where his safety belts had been.
“I asked him how he had gotten out,” he told Vieira. “He said his lap belt and shoulder harness had broken. He said the plane had disintegrated and he was able to swim free.”
Some 25 years ago, Herndon had been out on the lake with others when they saw a fishing boat that had improperly anchored with its stern into the waves . “The water came over the stern and the boat sank,” Herndon said.
Acting quickly, he motored to stricken craft and was able to save three of the four people aboard.
Vieira called him a hero, but Herndon shrugged it off.
“Everyone in America could be a hero, too,” he said. “I was just ready.”