Donald Reukauf and his son, Dakota, and daughter, Megan, both Lancaster High School students, went out walleye fishing on Oneida Lake on an overcast day last June.
They didn’t catch any fish, but they reeled in something even bigger: a Central New York man who nearly drowned after being thrown from his boat without a life preserver.
Robert M. Wafer, a detective with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, couldn’t be more grateful to the Reukaufs, who responded to his cries for help, pulled him to their boat and held onto him until rescue crews could respond and bring Wafer to shore.
The Reukaufs received an award from the Sheriff’s Office last fall, and the teenagers were honored by the Lancaster School Board at the board’s Jan. 28 meeting. “If it wasn’t for them, it’s a fact I wouldn’t be alive,” Wafer said.
The paths of Wafer and the Reukaufs crossed on June 9 on Oneida Lake, where Wafer and his wife, Mary Ann, have a summer home on the north shore and where Donald Reukauf’s parents have had a home for decades.
Wafer had taken his 16-foot Bayliner on the lake without telling his wife and without putting on either of its two life preservers.
As Wafer zipped across the lake, he walked back to the motor. The novice operator didn’t realize boats that are unmanned, but under power, as a safety feature will start to turn and move in a circle, so he was caught by surprise by a sudden shift in direction and thrown clear over the starboard side.
The boat’s wake kept pushing Wafer farther away from the boat, and from shore, and his hooded sweatshirt and jeans began to weigh him down. He treaded water but soon grew tired and cold.
“Being a police officer, I’m realizing I’m in a life-and-death situation,” Wafer said.
He didn’t have the energy to remove his heavy clothes, and his head dipped under water as he struggled to stay afloat.
After 10 minutes in the water, Wafer decided his best chance to survive was to yell for help.
Megan, then 14, and Dakota, then 16, heard his pleas. So the Reukaufs pulled up their fishing lines and took off toward the still-circling boat.
As they got closer, they saw the boat was empty and called 911.
Dakota was the first one to see Wafer, who was underwater except for one arm sticking up. “He was sinking,” Megan said.
Donald Reukauf steered their boat close to Wafer as Dakota reached out with a fishing net, which Wafer was able to grab. Dakota tugged Wafer toward the side of the boat and then grabbed him as Megan held Wafer’s head to keep it above water.
Megan said Wafer looked “out of it” as she reassured him, “I’m not going to let go of you. I’m not going to let go of you.”
Their boat was too small to pull Wafer, who is 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, onto it, so Wafer had to remain in the water until emergency crews could get to him.
Soon, a personal watercraft came by and Wafer, by now wearing a life jacket, moved over to grab onto the watercraft.
After 45 minutes in the water, a Constantia Fire Department boat came by to take Wafer to shore. Megan cried with relief when it was all over.
A relieved Wafer was treated and released from a local hospital, but he had trouble sleeping that night. He took a week off from work, and he met with a sheriff’s chaplain as he tried to cope with his near-death experience. “It was really, psychologically tough,” he said.
Wafer tried to reach his rescuers but couldn’t find them, so the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office ceremony in November was his first chance to talk to them.
The Lancaster School Board picked up on the teens’ accomplishment after Superintendent Edward J. Myszka overheard their mother, Cheryl, a district employee, talking about it.
The district included an account in its most recent newsletter and School Board President Kenneth Graber late last month handed out citations to Megan, now 15 and a sophomore, and Dakota, now 17 and a senior.
Graber read from Wafer’s harrowing account and told the audience that honoring students like Megan and Dakota makes serving on the School Board worthwhile.
“I’m proud of my kids,” Donald Reukauf said.