APPLETON, Maine — George Stevenson said that after 45 minutes trapped atop his tractor which had sunk in the pond next to his home he had accepted that he was going to die.
“I thought how ironic it was that I had spent a lot of my life at sea and I was going to die in four feet of water,” the 83-year-old Appleton man said Thursday. Stevenson spoke from the home he built in 2003 that is located within several feet of Pieri’s Pond — a 12.5-acre man-made body of water located entirely on his land off Appleton Ridge Road.
Stevenson has allowed the public to use his pond for swimming in the summer and skating in the winter. He also allows folks to cross-country ski on his land. That generosity served him well Tuesday when Tree Roth of Union and Dora Lievow of Camden came to his rescue.
Stevenson said he had gone out about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday to clear the boat launching ramp by his house, using the bucket on his tractor to remove snow. He was then going to drill holes in the ice to determine its thickness to see whether he could take the tractor out further on the pond to clear the snow and allow people to skate. Since he could not back up the tractor on the launch, he drove onto the ice simply to turn the machine around to go back up the ramp when the tractor began sinking.
The tractor was parallel to the shore, about seven feet from land when it sank.
Stevenson said he made a mistake by leaving his cellphone in his pants pocket instead of his breast pocket, where it would have been dry and could have been used. Instead it got underwater and would not work.
The Appleton man said he immediately turned off the engine to prevent more water from getting into it, to reduce the damage to the machine.
The bucket on the tractor had been raised, and he tried to crawl atop the machine to get in the bucket and out of the water that had covered him to his breastbone. The only two parts of the tractor above water were the roll bar and the bucket.
The water temperature was about freezing but the air temperature was a bone-chilling 9 degrees, he said.
Soon his clothes had frozen and he was able to only get his knees on the steering wheel and hands onto the bucket. He suffered a stroke three years ago and was still not strong enough to pull himself onto the bucket, he said.
When he realized he could not get himself out, he began yelling for help.
At that same time on the other side of the pond, Roth and Lievow had decided to cross-country ski on that bitterly cold day. The two women had never met Stevenson but both said they appreciated his decision years earlier to allow people to use his property for recreation.
The women said the trails on the property are among their favorite places to ski in the winter. Roth said she has used the property for 30 years.
They had just started their ski outing when Roth said she heard something that caught her attention. Lievow said she heard nothing.
“I couldn’t tell what it was at first,” Roth said. “I thought it might be a dog barking but then I realized it didn’t have the right rhythm or cadence.”
She said she stopped and called out asking if someone needed help but got no response.
Lievow said that she took Roth’s dog, who was out on the hike with them, and Roth went ahead, trying to determine what she heard. Roth stopped several times and again called out but heard nothing.
“There wasn’t a lot of reinforcement that there was someone who needed help,” she said.
But they were near a frozen pond and she figured someone might be in trouble.
The women said it took about 10 minutes before they spotted an orange object off in the distance. As they got closer it appeared that the orange object was a cap and it appeared that someone was on top of a snowmobile or an ice shack.
When they reached Stevenson, the first thing he said was to call 911, which they did.
Stevenson said when the two women found him, there was great relief.
“I had just about given up,” he said, now 45 minutes into his ordeal.
“They did everything proper. There was no panic on their part,” he said.
After calling 911, the women grabbed a nearby aluminum skiff that belonged to Stevenson and placed it between the shore and the tractor. They tried to pull him off the tractor and into the skiff but he was experiencing pain in his ribs as they tried to get him over the side of the skiff. They tried putting pillows on the edge of the skiff to cushion it but then decided to wait for emergency personnel to arrive.
They also brought out blankets and a quilt from his house to cover him up. They put their hands on his face to warm him.
Stevenson said that their warm hands on his face felt wonderful.
The pair kept talking with him until the first emergency personnel arrived. The first was Fire Chief David Stone, they said, and they managed to pull Stevenson onto the skiff and then pulled the skiff onto the shore.
Crews arrived and took him by ambulance to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport.
Stevenson spent 20 hours in the hospital. He said the skin on both his shins was skinned off from trying to crawl around on the tractor.
“Otherwise I feel pretty good,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said he cannot thank the two women enough for what they did.
Roth and Lievow said they are glad they were in the right place and were able to help.
“There are times when you listen to that inner voice,” Roth said about deciding to follow the noise she heard.