OTISFIELD— Cecille shone a flashlight, scanning the property for the dog. Abby had returned with Richard, but Buster was still outside, nowhere to be seen.

It was cold, and Cecille called out to her husband, Richard, that Buster wasn’t back. Odd, but not unheard of; Abby and Buster, their pair of labs, liked to sniff around the rural Otisfield property, especially at night when they were set out to do their business.

Richard Walters went back out to look for him, beams from the flashlight penetrating the dark.

That was when the light passed over the small, deep pond. In the center, where a wind-mill powered aerator keeps the surface unfrozen all winter, two bright points glittered back.

Though Richard couldn’t see them, four legs worked furiously to keep his head barely above the water’s surface. Buster.

Days later, when the Otisfield couple recalled their lab’s misadventure, they were still amazed at the sequence of events which befell – quite literally – their dog, and grateful for the dedicated crew of volunteer firefighters who pulled him, shivering and weak, to safety.

The Walters’ porch sits elevated above several acres of their Bow Street property, looking out on a wooded lot Richard has been clearing.

When the couple moved to the area and rebuilt the rural home over a decade ago Richard, a fly fisherman, had a pond dug and eventually received a permit to stock it with trout.

The trout did not survive the first winter. Richard speculating they lacked oxygen when the surface completely froze during the winter, submerged an aerator in the center of the pond, powering it with a 20-foot metal windmill on the pond’s edge that friends helped him build.

It worked; a small, fivefoot hole remained ice-free. The dogs seemed curious at first, but were sensible enough to stay back from the hole, he said.

That all changed last Monday.

Though he’s unsure exactly what caused Buster to charge headlong and plunge into the pond, Richard suspects he was chasing an animal, an opportunity too good to pass up.

Cecille dialed 911, and as firefighters raced to the scene, Richard pulled on his boots and snowshoes. He was going after his dog.

In hindsight, it was perhaps lucky he never made it. Otisfield Fire Chief Mike Hooker got the call about 9:30 p.m., his group of volunteer firefighters take these calls seriously; distressed owners tend to get themselves into trouble trying to save their pets.

“Very soon it can turn into something more,” Hooker said.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Richard was immediately hampered by 50 feet of thigh-deep snow separating the house from the pond. He kept falling. He tried to throw a buoyant life ring to give Buster something to grab onto, without success.

Half an hour passed as firefighters drove to the scene. As they waited for the crew to come, Cecille kept up a steady stream of chatter with Buster, afraid to stop. He whimpered the entire time, she said.

“We were starting to think the worst,” Walters said.

Eventually, nine firefighters converged on the scene and planned their route. High snowbanks prevented them from getting close to the pond, so they carried a ladder to the pond’s edge, Hooker said.

In a cold water suit, Hooker crossed the ice and lowered the top half of his torso into the pond, grabbing hold of Buster while the ladder offered support.

After a few moments, they lifted him out, and crews carried 90-pound Buster, too weak to walk, 100 hundred feet over the snow and ice indoors.

Hypothermia was their major concern, and EMT’s rushed him into a warm bath, placing heating pads designed for humans around him.

After a tense all-night vigil, Buster made it.

Walter’s described the firefighters dedication was “unbelievable.”

“I was totally happy they got him out, but they didn’t stop there; they carried a 90-pound lab, in three-foot deep snow, back into the house.”

The time it took crews to arrive at the scene and get Buster from the freezing pond to the warm bath was incredible, he said.

“I don’t know what I would have done without them.”

Hooker credits the team’s success with biannual coldwater rescue training. Given the number of lakes and ponds in the area, the fire chief said it was remarkable it was the first rescue of its kind for firefighters.

Hooker, who owns a farm in Otisfield, said he has many animals and understands their gratitude.

“For some, they’re important as people are to them.”

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