Fisherman meets firefighter who saved life

January 10, 2012 9:16:16 AM PST
Last week, a Chicago firefighter helped save the life of a fellow fisherman who fell into a frigid Lake Michigan.

The firefighter says it was fate; he was supposed to be there by the water to help. On Tuesday, both men met again for the first time since the rescue. It was an emotional reunion.

Chicago Firefighter Bill Miller was off duty, fishing in Diversey Harbor when a 67-year-old fisherman slipped into the water, which was 33 degrees at the time. The man spent 20 minutes in the water as Miller kept him afloat until emergency crews arrived.

"I tried to stand up and my chair slid. I went into the water backwards, and I just started yelling, 'Help, help!'" said victim Charles Wahtola.

Wahtola, a retired engineer who lives in Colorado and part time in Chicago, is in town for the upcoming birth of a grandchild. He was sitting on the edge of a dock on an unstable chair.

"I am a gentleman of substance. I weigh 340. He needed help to pull me out," Wahtola said. "When I came out of the water, I was hypothermic, but I did not realize it. I said, 'I'm ready to go home. The paramedic, said, 'No, no, you're going to the hospital.'"

Miller initially had trouble trying to figure out how to dial 911 on his iPhone, so he called his fellow firefighters-the number already saved in his phone.

"I grabbed onto him, and I contacted my firehouse. And 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," Miller said.

A handshake and a hug kicked off this joyful reunion at Engine 42 in River North Tuesday. The two men say they're not only planning fishing trips and fish dinners together, they are now lifelong friends.

"I want to let people know how proud I am to be a Chicago fireman. My parents have been married 55 years. They live in Mt. Greenwood on the South Side. And this is something that means a lot to me," Miller said.

Wahtola's son bought him a lifejacket with a GPS monitoring system installed in case he ever has another mishap.

"Thanks for saving my life, Billy Miller of the Chicago Fire Department, my favorite fisherman, a really big catch," Wahtola said.