The man standing high atop the banks of the roaring Androscoggin River had a lot of questions and a lot of complaints.
He stood with arms crossed near the edge of Riverside Drive, his face aglow with the red emergency lights that blazed all around. He scowled and shook his head in anger and disgust.
“Why didn’t they jump into the water sooner?” he demanded to know. “What took them so long to get a damn boat out there? What kind of operation is this, anyway?”
The fellow had additional complaints and there was no end to his dour assessment of the rescue effort. I understood his thoughts, I really did. When things go horrifically wrong — and what is more horrific than two children lost in a raging river? — you want to blame someone. Sometimes it’s not so much a want as a desperate need.
I get it, I sincerely do.
But not this time. Not out there along Riverside Drive in Auburn where dozens of cops, firefighters, medics and plain old Johns and Janes scrambled like a desperate army to free those kids from the loveless clutch of the river.
I’ve witnessed a lot of rescue operations over the years, but I’ve never seen one as intense as the effort that began spreading across that long stretch of river just seconds after the tragedy was born.
On both sides of the Androscoggin, uniformed cops ran at full sprints, their teeth gritted, their faces red. Grim-faced firefighters practically flung themselves down steep riverbanks, desperate to get to the water as fast as possible.
And it wasn’t just in this spot or that spot. The rescue operation seemed to span a full mile of unforgiving river, even in the first minutes. Police, firefighters and plenty of people without rank or uniform were running every which way, sweaty, out of breath, furiously determined to outpace the river itself.
It was a wild, human frenzy to reclaim the lost boys and the frantic power of unified purpose sizzled in the air like electricity. You could feel people wanting it. Needing it. Collectively praying for a happy outcome with all their hearts.
And then, near the middle of the rushing river, a fireman in a canoe began paddling so ferociously toward shore, his arms looked like bionic pinwheels. Behind him splashed the diver, an off-duty firefighter who had reached the boy just seconds before.
I remember watching them bring the 10-year-old out of the river, silently calculating the time it would take to get him out of the boat, up that sharp, muddy embankment and through a stabbing maze of trees to the ambulance waiting at the roadside.
I don’t know how long it took them because I never got a chance to start counting. They moved in an amazing blur of pumping legs, outstretched arms and clutching fists to get the boy to relative safety at the top of the hill. Those seven men made that stubborn hill look like a smooth walk along flat terrain. They dared the trees and rocks and branches to just try and stop them.
Meanwhile, more crews were arriving by the minute — more medics, police, game wardens, firefighters and divers who wouldn’t hesitate to wade into that greedy, erratic river if it would improve the chances of finding the second boy sooner rather than later.
The river is unconquerable under the best of circumstances, but damned if they didn’t try. In a perfect world, both boys would have been plucked from the river, wet, cold and scared but otherwise intact. The rescuers could have gathered at a saloon later to toast their achievement while the roar of applause rang out around them.
But the river is unpredictable and so is life itself sometimes. Instead of cold beer and pats on the back, they got — from a few corners, anyway — doubt and second-guessing. When the tired searchers concluded their efforts before midnight, surrendering at last to the swollen river and dismal dark, at least one person accused them of dooming the lost 5-year-old.
You have to blame someone, I guess, when things go horrifically wrong and the notion of a happy ending has faded into nothing.
I can’t speak to the logistics of the rescue effort, of course, or explain why one boy was spared while the other was not. You might as well ask God or the universe or the river itself about those unhappy matters.
Having watched this rescue attempt up close, though, I can tell you that I’ve never seen so many people so emotionally invested in keeping that happy ending alive for as long as possible.
If pure determination and heart were all it took to save a person from a rampaging river, there wouldn’t have been much of a problem that night out on the Androscoggin.
Unfortunately, life isn’t just unfair at times. At times it’s downright cruel.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer who knows firsthand how cruel life can be. Email him at [email protected]