GROTON, Connecticut – It was a daring water rescue unlike any Lt. Erick Jenkins had experienced in his 27-year career with the Groton, Connecticut, Police Department.
Jenkins jumped into the chest-high water of the Thames River, battling 3-foot waves and winds gusting 40 mph to rescue 85-year-old Marie Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald pulled into the parking lot of Eastern Point Beach, a picturesque spot overlooking the Long Island Sound, but lost control of her Honda Civic. Her car burst through the concrete barrier, barreled over the boulders acting as a buffer and plunged into the water.
For 10 agonizing minutes, Fitzgerald sat frozen and trapped inside her car while it bobbed and was thrown amid the abnormally strong waves.
“Groton City, multiple 911s for a car into the water,” noted the police dispatch.
The first person to spring into action was 34-year-old John Sidlinger of nearby Mystic, Connecticut. He was in the parking lot having lunch with his girlfriend when they saw Fitzgerald’s car lurch into the water.
“Before I even said anything she was on the phone calling 911,” Sidlinger recalled. “I just went out and ended up grabbing a rail and breaking the front windshield out.”
But it wasn’t enough to get Fitzgerald to safety. Several members of the city’s police and fire departments took over in a more forceful attempt to free Fitzgerald before her car filled with water.
“Oh God, do something. Quickly!” The frantic cries can be heard on the cell phone video that captured the entire rescue on March 31. “Hurry up, hurry up!”
Jenkins knew he had to break out a side window so he could open the door and get Fitzgerald out.
“Break the window! Break the window!” shouted the bystanders on that cell phone video. By now, about 20 people had gathered on the shore to watch the rescue.
Jenkins broke out the back side window first, but since Fitzgerald was paralyzed with fear, it didn’t help. And time was running out.
“I noticed that the water was all the way to the top of the window,” Jenkins said. “And I started getting nervous thinking she was under water. How long can she last under water? We gotta hurry up and do this.”
Fitzgerald’s head was tilted back and she was gasping for air while the water moved up past her neck.
While trying to keep his feet steady on the sandy floor, Jenkins then broke through the front side window, unlocked the passenger-side door, and pulled Fitzgerald toward him. “I don’t think I said anything. I just grabbed her and pulled her out.”
The first responders waiting on shore placed Fitzgerald on a backboard and got her to paramedics. Jenkins didn’t realize his own safety and health were at risk after spending several minutes standing in 44-degree water battered by the wind and waves.
“Capt. [Raymond] Hart came over and put a blanket around me and I asked, ‘What are you doing? I’m fine.’ And he said, ‘You need to get warm,'” Jenkins said. “I guess I was shivering. I didn’t know.”
Fitzgerald was checked out at the hospital and returned to her Groton home; she hand-wrote thank-you notes to all the first responders soon after.
One of the fire officials on the scene, Deputy Chief Robert Tompkins, was surprised to learn it was Marie Fitzgerald who was the subject of the rescue. Fitzgerald was Tompkins’ sixth grade teacher.
“Dear Robert,” Fitzgerald wrote, “my most sincere thank you to you and the other members of the fire department who came to my rescue last Friday at Eastern Point Beach. You worked so efficiently that I’m sure that you saved me from the panic that comes from an event like that. I will be forever grateful to you.”
Fitzgerald also penned a particularly poignant thank-you to Jenkins.
“It’s nice that after 27 years you know there’s one event you did that helped,” Jenkins said. “You can stop drunk drivers, you can talk to people, a domestic or something like that. But you know that this one event helped somebody, and it was worth it.”