By Terry Karkos

Staff Writer

RUMFORD &tstr; Two of three Rumford men who risked their lives on the Androscoggin River last Saturday night to pull snowmobiler Michael Thurston from its frigid water, said Friday the harrowing rescue was only half the battle.

The other half was getting Thurston safely across 100 feet of ice, up and over the riverbank, then up through deep snow onto a snowmobile and into a waiting Med-Care ambulance on South Rumford Road within a few minutes.

That was all they believed Thurston had left, after spending 90 minutes in the river fighting a current that shoved most of his body under the ice.

“God was with us,” said Dick Bonnell, who belly-slid on thin ice to reach Thurston while tethered by a 25- to 30-foot rope held by Rumford fire Capt. Spencer Couture and Matthew Roy.

Couture, Bonnell and Thurston’s mother, Karen Cole, all called it a miracle that Thurston is alive and recovering, despite being minutes from death with a body temperature of about 85 degrees Fahrenheit when he was put into the ambulance.

“Survival isn’t known to go much colder than that. I think it’s like 84 degrees and that’s it. You’re dead,” Couture said.

Thurston’s ordeal began at 7:15 p.m. Jan. 31 when he drove into open water on the Androscoggin River while snowmobiling with his friend, Benjamin Hodgkins of Roxbury.

Before going under, Thurston took off his helmet and kicked off his boots. The current took him 100 yards or more downriver, shoving his body under a sheet of ice that he grabbed and got onto with his elbows.

When Hodgkins couldn’t find Thurston, he returned to Cole’s house and she called 911.

When Couture heard the emergency call, he grabbed 150 feet of rope and a spotlight and headed for the river from his Rumford Point home, but he couldn’t find Thurston.

Bonnell took rope and a flashlight and rode his snowmobile to the Thurston home, where he learned Thurston was somewhere in the river. By Cole’s tone, he knew he had to help.

“A mother’s cry for help, it’s a powerful thing,” Bonnell said.

Knowing the area, he raced to just beyond where the Concord River meets the Androscoggin. There, he met Couture and told him to hop on.

Bonnell shut off his sled’s engine, and he and Couture bellowed Thurston’s name twice before Thurston answered. Bonnell shined the flashlight and spotted Thurston’s head and gloved hands a few hundred feet away, where the river rounds a big bend.

They drove to within 100 feet of Thurston, where Roy joined them, and all three walked out onto knee-deep slushy ice. They didn’t hesitate, despite the danger. They knew Thurston was dying.

“We were on the outside of the turn, which is the worst place to be because that’s where the ice is usually the thinnest,” Couture said.

When they got closer, Couture tied the rope around Bonnell, who belly-slid toward Thurston, while Couture and Roy held the other end.

“I remember praying to God when I slid out on that thin ice. I was just running on adrenaline,” Bonnell said.

Reaching Thurston, he grabbed him and pulled, but couldn’t get him out.

Thurston began saying, “I’m gonna die; I’m gonna die.”

Bonnell spun around and sat on the edge of the ice.

“It scared the hell out of me,” Couture said, “but Dickey reached down and shoved his hand into the water as far as he could reach, grabbed hold of something and when he pulled back, I saw him lean back and he yelled to Matt, ‘Pull!’ and we pulled and they both slid out,” Couture said.

“It was a brutal pull,” Bonnell said.

Couture and Roy dragged Bonnell and Thurston back to more solid ice, but realized that four guys weighing 1,000 pounds total in one spot wasn’t good.

Bonnell and Couture grabbed Thurston’s jacket collar, while Roy grabbed his arm and together they ran across the rest of the ice to the riverbank, dragging Thurston.

At the riverbank, they met Jason McPherson, Thaddeus Bennett, Michael’s brother, Matthew Thurston, and Matthew’s girlfriend, Jade Gianforte.

Michael Thurston’s clothing had frozen stiff by then and all seven couldn’t get him up the bank.

Couture sat Thurston up, tied the rope around his waist and passed it up to Bonnell who climbed the bank. Together, they got him up to Bonnell’s sled and into the ambulance.

After spending the night in intensive care at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Michael Thurston returned home on Feb. 2 with no frost bite and is recovering.

“We’ve had ‘The Miracle on the Hudson,’ and now we’ve had ‘The Miracle on the Androscoggin,'” his mother said.

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