AUBURN — It was supposed to be a nice, moonlit cruise. Instead, two men, two women and two dogs were plucked from the Androscoggin River when their boat motor died, leaving them hanging just above the raging falls between Lewiston and Auburn.
"The engine just cut out," said a tearful Arlene Duclos, who clutched her toy poodle, Reese, in the aftermath of the rescue. "We kept drifting closer and closer to the falls. I was so scared. I can't swim a lick."
The drama got under way at about 8 p.m. when witnesses reported a boat hanging on the edge of the falls, just below the train trestle.
"It was bad," said Jody Bolduc, who rushed to the Auburn side of the river after hearing about the incident on a police scanner. "There was panic. They were screaming and yelling over there."
Rescuers came from all over. Lewiston and Auburn firefighters were there. Auburn had a boat; so did the Androscoggin County Sheriff's Department. Police staffed both sides of the trestle and called the train company to make sure no trains went through.
A LifeFlight helicopter, making a return trip, hovered over the falls, shining a spotlight down on the stranded boat as darkness fell. Other rescue crews waited below the falls, in case the boat slipped over the edge.
For nearly an hour, the boat hung on the grates separating the upper part of the river from the lower part, beneath the falls. Rescuers sent life vests down to the disabled boat via a rope connecting the boat to the trestle.
"It would have been bad news if the boat went over," Bolduc said. "That river is just going full-bore."
Arlene Duclos' husband, Paul, owns the boat. They haven't used it in several years, she said, but the boat seemed sound. They fueled it up and went out onto the river around dusk.
"It was a mutually agreed-upon venture," said Ron Locke, who survived the ordeal with his wife and their black Pomeranian. "It was supposed to be a moonlit cruise."
Arlene Duclos was badly shaken — she doesn't swim and doesn't much like being near the water. Her husband, a Coast Guard veteran, was more irritated that things had come to such a dramatic conclusion.
"I knew we weren't going to go over," he said. "I told them to just be calm; we have to wait. I know how to survive things like this."
But for a time, all he could do was watch from his precarious perch as darkness fell and more rescuers arrived. More than a dozen were on the trestle, another four in an Auburn Rescue boat, and countless paramedics, firefighters and police officers were on land.
"Those guys did an absolutely great job," Bolduc said.
The Auburn Rescue boat was able to hook onto Duclos' smaller boat right away. The problem was the current, which rescuers feared was too strong. The Androscoggin County Sheriff's Department sent its rescue boat to the scene and for several minutes, they talked about strategy.
Ultimately, the Auburn boat pulled the Duclos craft free of the falls, hauling it a short distance to Higgins Sports Center on North River Road in Auburn. There, a small — but growing — crowd waited for the disabled boat to be towed in.
When it was, Arlene Duclos was the first off. She was trembling and clutching her poodle. Reese, on the other hand, looked perfectly calm.
"I wasn't going anywhere without her," Duclos said.
Next to her, Lorraine Locke clutched her Pomeranian, which looked completely unfazed. The dogs didn't so much as bark during the ordeal, Lorraine said.
While all of that was going on, police responded to a report of a man who was threatening to jump from the nearby Longley Bridge. That situation was wrapped up quickly and with much less drama than the other incident.
After all was said and done, nobody went into the river Thursday night.