The man poking his head out of the water had one hand on the dock, but he was losing his grip after several minutes in the Chicago River this morning, large ice chunks floating feet away.
Kneeling above him was Officer Wayne Kramer, who had sprinted down a flight of stairs after hearing the man's screams from his squad car on the lower level of Lake Shore Drive.
A former lifeguard, Kramer had one arm around the man as he called to his partner, Officer Fred Estrada, who was parking the squad car and calling for an ambulance.
"I said, Fred, I can't get this guy up by myself," said Kramer, 47.
Estrada and a bystander stooped next to Kramer on the four-foot-wide dock, trying to wrestle the man out of the water without getting pulled in.
"By the time we dragged him out of the water, we couldn't even get him to use his legs or his hands," Kramer said.
Paramedics arrived and brought the man into an ambulance. As police blocked traffic on the lower level of Lake Shore Drive, the ambulance turned around, briefly driving north in the southbound lane before making a right and merging onto the upper level of the drive toward Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The man remained in critical condition this morning.
The rescue unfolded around 12:15 a.m. when residents heard someone screaming for help and called police. The calls came from several locations, and Kramer and Estrada drove down streets adjacent to the dark riverbank, windows down, listening for shouts.
On the lower level of Lake Shore Drive just south of East Illinois Street, they heard yelling from the river.
Kramer sprinted down the stairs toward the docks as the bystander's pointed toward the source of the shouting. Kramer vaulted a locked fence and made his way down a snow-caked ramp, slipping in the process -- probably, he said later, the same way the 31-year-old man had fallen into the water.
"I had no footing at all," said Kramer, a 15-year veteran of the department. "It was all ice and snow."
Kramer quickly regained his balance and soon was stooping next the man, whose head was bobbing near the water's surface, he said.
"He was completely submerged in the water, actually all the way up to his hairline," Kramer said. "He was just lifting his head up to yell, and to breathe."
The man thanked Kramer, but soon his words became unintelligible. Remembering his training from five years as a Chicago Park District lifeguard, Kramer hooked his arm around a railing to anchor himself. The railing was too cold to hold with his hand.
Kramer tried pulling the man's dark-colored pea coat, but it began slipping off of him. So Kramer grabbed under the man's arm. By that time, the man was too weak to use his arms or his legs. Kramer was able to keep hold of the man until his partner and the bystander came to his aid.
Estrada said the outcome would have been vastly different without the people who called police and the bystander who pointed out where the man was. Even then, the rescue was dangerous because of the ice and snow.
"The ground was slippery," Estrada said. "I was worried about my partner slipping in there, and also the citizen, and also me.
"But we have to do what we have to do," said Estrada, who has been on the force for eight years. "I was just glad we were able to get ahold of him and bring him out."
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service