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Off-Duty Firefighter Rescues Fisherman Who Fell In Lake

Updated 01/04/12 - 9:47 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) -- An off-duty Chicago firefighter pulled a fisherman out of Lake Michigan at Diversey Harbor on Wednesday, after the fisherman fell in the icy water.

Both men were fishing at Diversey Harbor when Chuck Wahtola fell in the water shortly before 4 p.m. while trying to pull in his line.

"As I tried to get up, the chair slipped off the dock and i fell backwards into the water. And, so, I just started to yell 'Help, help,'" Wahtola told CBS 2's Kristyn Hartman.

Chicago Firefighter Billy Miller
Chicago Firefighter Billy Miller rescued a fireman from Lake Michigan on Jan. 4, 2012, after the man lost his balance and fell into the water at Diversey Harbor. (Credit: CBS)

Billy Miller, an off-duty firefighter who had met Wahtola a few minutes earlier at the dock, ran over to help him. Wahtola managed to swim to the dock, where Miller held onto him until firefighters, paramedics and police officers arrived to assist.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio's Lisa Fielding reports


"He swam to the dock and I held him up by the dock and, when I held him up by the dock, that's when I called you guys. … I got that in my speed dial, 'Firehouse,' you know?" Miller told his fellow firefighters afterward.

Chicago firefighters and police officers responded to the scene to help get Wahtola out of the water.

"It was extremely cold," Wahtola said.

Crews put a ladder in the water, hoping Wahtola could use it to climb out, but that didn't work.

"We couldn't pull him out, we had to get a diver in the water because of the fact that … he was saturated in water, but the gentleman did a nice job of picking his feet up and getting it on the aluminum supports of the dock," Miller said.

All the while, Miller was holding onto and talking to his new found fishing buddy, whose situation was serious.

"I just wanted to keep him conscious," Miller said, adding that he was "constantly talking to him, making sure he moved his fingers and his toes, because that water's probably about 33 degrees right now."

After 15 to 20 minutes, crews got Wahtola out and took him to Saint Joseph Hospital.

"It's a very happy new year," Wahtola said. He and his wife, Julie, had a lot to smile about in the Saint Joseph emergency room. They know his story could have had an unhappy ending.

"Billy, you saved my life. That's what I told him several times," Wahtola said.

Dr. Irene Yao said, considering the conditions, Wahtola was, "Very lucky that somebody was there to keep him afloat."

The obvious danger was that Wahtola could succumb to hypothermia, but emergency crews took measures to warm Wahtola up.

Wahtola said he wouldn't let the experience keep him from fishing again.

"He'll fish again, but not alone," his wife said. "That's wife's orders."

Miller likely will be up for a commendation for his actions. He said he did catch some perch while he was fishing, but he tossed them back.

"We caught a human being," he said.

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