Crash jolted memory for rescuer

KELLEYS ISLAND Chuck Herndon, with nothing but a rowboat and attentive ear, searched Lake Er
JACOB LAMMERS
May 24, 2010

KELLEYS ISLAND

Chuck Herndon, with nothing but a rowboat and attentive ear, searched Lake Erie as a cry for help pierced the night silence.

"I'm coming. I'm coming. Keep screaming," Herndon said.

Herndon heard the voice of 7-year-old Joel Hutchison of Lima, who escaped with his life after his father's plane crashed Monday night off Kelleys Island.

"Every now and then he'd yell 'Help,'" Herndon said. "He was quiet often and I thought 'Oh my gosh.' I never saw him, only heard him."

Herndon, 60, and his wife, Cindy, were eating dinner at his mother's house nearby at 102 Laylin Lane, when they saw the 1962 Cessna 172C Skyhawk go down about 9:10 p.m.

The Herndons live near the Kelleys Island Municipal Airport and said it looked like the plane was in trouble soon after it took off.

"It looked like it never got going," Cindy said. "It looked like a roller coaster. It went up, it went down, it went up again."

Chuck Herndon saw the plane's lights as it arced down and crashed. While Cindy dialed 911, Chuck searched for the crash site in his metal rowboat.

When Herndon pulled Joel into the boat, the boy's words barely came out as he shivered.

"He asked me if I was a Christian, and he thought that might have been why I was out there ... to help him," Herndon said. "I said I had a good heart and wished him well."

Joel escaped after his seat belt broke and the plane was beginning to break apart upon impact, Herndon said. He had been treading water for about 15 minutes before Herndon found him.

"If it would've taken longer, I might not have gotten there," Herndon said. "At (age) 7 could I have stayed up that long? I doubt it."

The boy's survival is beyond explanation, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Robert Lanier.

"The fact that he had the strength to tread water and the strength to be heard is extraordinary," Lanier said. "Amazing people do amazing things under extraordinary circumstances."

When Chuck pulled him into the boat, the boy was bruised and cut where he had been wearing his seat belt.

"He was a gutsy kid," Chuck said. "He's a tough kid."

Joel later told Herndon his father, Jeff Hutchison, 46, and his 9-year-old brother, Jeremy David Hutchison, were dead.

Rescuers recovered Jeremy's body Tuesday and are continuing to search for the boys' father, who piloted the plane. Joel was brought to St. Vincent Medical Center, where he was listed in fair condition Tuesday. A man's body found near the wreckage of the plane was identified as that of Joel's father, the Coast Guard reported late Tuesday.

Herndon does not consider himself a hero.

"I had a boat here," he said. "Anyone would've done the same, I assume. I was just in the right spot for the kid."

Dr. William Bruner, who also saw the crash, said Herndon took quite a risk going out there.

"He rushed out there with no thought for himself without a life jacket," Bruner said. "I'd call him a hero."

It was not the first time the Kelleys Island native has risked his life to save others.

About 20 years ago, he and his wife rescued three people from a boat that sank.

The plane crash "brought that all back," Chuck said. "I feel very sorry for the family."

Despite his efforts, Herndon could not save the fourth person on that boat, so he said he understands how the boy must feel right now.

"It's an emotional experience," he said. "I held his hand in the ambulance. I felt some connection."

Herndon's heroics have not gone unnoticed.

He was scheduled to appear between 7-9 a.m. today on NBC's The Today Show from Marblehead, Cindy Herndon said.