Grandmother dies after fall through ice

January 5, 2009 3:21:25 PM PST
An attempt to save a dog's life cost a grandmother her own.She drowned trying to reach the animal.

The sad string of events played out Saturday morning at a pond in Plainsboro, New Jersey.

"I don't ever think I felt the cold water," said Austin Hearn, who tried to save the woman. "I was just blindly trying to get to her."

Hearn, a veteran lifeguard, was riding his bike around Plainsboro Pond Saturday morning when he heard a woman screaming for help.

It was 61-year-old Janet Howard of nearby Edgemere Avenue submerged in the freezing water up to her head.

She was apparently trying to save her grandson's German Shepherd which had fallen in and was trapped in the frozen pond.

Howard tried to save him, and fell through the ice.

Running on adrenaline, Hearn chopped and punched his way through the ice to reach Howard, a grandmother who worked as a supervisor at Rutgers' Douglass College Library.

"I break this trail all the way to where the woman is and I'm trying to reach out with a branch," Hearn said. "But apparently I'm not close enough. She's probably, like, three feet away. So, I take another step and I fall underwater."

Hearn is a stong swimmer who's been a lifeguard for 15 years, but weighted down by heavy, wet clothes he struggled to stay afloat.

Unable to reach Howard, and after almost drowning himself, Hearn fought his was back to shore and pedaled home to call police.

But by the time rescue crews got there, it was too late.

"They're content knowing that he did everything he could," said Howard's brother-in-law Michael Patnode. He said the family is devastated by her death, but grateful that Austin Hearn tried to save her.

"There's no second guessing on anybody's part. He definitely put his life at risk," Patnode said.

Following the trail Austin Hearn made, the dog made its way safely back to shore.

Hearn suffered some minor cuts on his hands chopping through the ice and is heartbroken he couldn't save Janet Howard.

But he rejects the notion his actions were heroic. He says it's just human to try to help someone in trouble.

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