On Christmas Eve of 1953, a 9-year-old boy fell through the ice. The rescuers didn't hesitate
The legacy left from that fateful day lives on. Columnist Steve Lange tells the story.
ROCHESTER — It was Christmas Eve of 1953, and 9-year-old John Paul Stephenson — the new kid in town, an Arkansas boy in his first winter in Rochester — was meeting up with a new friend.
John Paul said goodbye to his mom, told her he might go sledding. She reminded him to be home by 1 p.m. for some last-minute Christmas shopping. He promised he would.
John Paul walked to the south side of Silver Lake and met up with his friend, 9-year-old Larry Bluhm. It was overcast, and the two boys crossed the recently frozen lake. They played in the snow piles on the north side.
Then the sun came out. The temps rose. The new turbine at the nearby power plant — put into action just in time for the Christmas lighting season — kept discharging warm water into the lake.
When the boys realized it was nearly 1 p.m., they headed home. They didn’t want to be late. They took the shortcut across the ice on Silver Lake. The same way they’d come.
Two firefighters, one morning
At the Rochester Fire Department’s downtown station, Ambrose Riley, 38, and Stan O’Brien, 40, had just finished some routine maintenance on a fire truck.
The two men had been linked together since day one with RFD. Both had been sworn in on the same August day in 1947. Both were married with three kids. Both were World War II vets and electricians.
And now, they were putting their electrician experience to work, completing last-minute repairs on some used electric toys that had been donated to the Christmas drive. Tomorrow, they, along with other firefighters, would be dropping off the gifts to some of Rochester’s kids in need.
Then, at 12:55 p.m., the call came in. The woman on the phone was frantic. A child had broken through the ice on Silver Lake.
'My friend fell through the ice'
Maybe a third of the way across the lake, along that same path they’d safely walked a few hours before, John Paul broke through the ice.
Larry went for help. He ran back across the ice and up the hill to the nearest house. It was the home of Dr. T. O. Wellner, the Olmsted County coroner.
Wellner’s housekeeper, Miss LaVonne Overton, answered the door. “My friend fell through the ice,” Larry yelled. “He’s drowning.”
LaVonne made that call to the fire department. Then ran with Larry to the shore. They could see John Paul struggling in the freezing water. There was nothing they could do.
'They never gave up'
Firefighters Riley and O’Brien — along with three other members of RFD — were on the scene within minutes.
They saw John Paul, exhausted, trying to pull himself onto the edges of the ice. When he’d fall off, he’d swim back and try again.
Everyone who witnessed the event agrees on this part: Riley and O’Brien didn’t hesitate. They grabbed a roof ladder from the fire truck. Didn’t even take the time to change out of their heavy jackets and boots.
Then they both started crawling across the thin ice. The ice they knew couldn’t hold a 9-year-old child.
The other firefighters went, too.
John Paul, even as he struggled to stay above water, warned the men not to come any closer. He was worried they would fall through the ice.
By now, a crowd of 150 or so had gathered on the shore, watching helplessly. Other firefighters and police officers had managed to launch canoes and began to paddle through the ice toward the boy.
Riley and O’Brien made one last push with the ladder. John Paul was just out of reach. They crawled forward, just a bit more, and the ice broke. Both firefighters, their heavy gear waterlogged, fell into the lake. They swam for John Paul.
The men managed to pull the boy onto a floating log, but it flipped over and he went under again. So it went. They would pull him out of the water, and he would go back under, too weak to swim. Hypothermia had set in. The firefighters fought to stay afloat. Then John Paul went under again.
One of the canoes, by now, was close enough for Riley and O’Brien to swim to. Witnesses say the two men could have reached out and grabbed it. Could have saved themselves.
Instead, both men dove underwater — in the frigid cold of that December day in 1953 — in search of John Paul.
'The Last Alarm'
Carved into a monument overlooking Silver Lake is a simple inscription: “Below this overlook, shortly after 1 p.m. on Dec. 24, 1953, firefighters Stanley J. O’Brien and Ambrose J. Riley answered their last call attempting to rescue 9-year-old John Paul Stephenson from the lake’s icy waters. All were lost.”
After that final dive underwater, Stanley and Ambrose and John Paul didn’t resurface.
The legacy left from that day, though, lived on long after they were lost.
It lived on as those other police and firefighters risked their lives to dive in after them. It lived on as rescuers pulled those bodies out, after 15 minutes of searching the lake bottom. It lived on as those bystanders took turns performing CPR and running to their homes to get blankets to try and warm the frozen bodies.
Then it lived on in the funeral procession that shut down the city just after Christmas, and in the outpouring of money and support for the families of the two lost firefighters and lost a 9-year-old boy.
And, like it has every year since 1953, it lives on in the Rochester Fire Department’s Christmas Eve Ceremony of Remembrance, a “five bell” tribute to Riley and O’Brien, held at 9 a.m. on Dec. 24 in front of that Silver Lake monument — not far from where they made their last dive, down to the bottom of an icy Silver Lake, for that final try to save a child they didn’t know.
Steve Lange is the editor of Rochester Magazine. His column appears every Tuesday.