Quick thinking saves 13-year-old who plunged through thin ice in Fairbanks

Soldotna youth pulls friend from river

Posted: Wednesday, March 07, 2001

Anyone who has experienced it knows that falling through the ice into the freezing waters below can be a frightening and sometimes paralyzing experience.

Anyone who has not experienced it can just ask Rick Bailey Jr., a 13-year-old Soldotna resident who plummeted through the ice of the Chena River in Fairbanks Feb. 24 at an area called Pike's Landing.

It wasn't a quick dip, either, and Bailey suddenly found himself struggling to get out of frigid waters.

"It took my breath away," Bailey said. "I felt so heavy with all of the water soaked into my clothes, and every time I would try to pull myself out, the ice would start breaking."

There are many possible outcomes when someone falls through the ice and into the chilling waters, but Bailey and his family won't have to think about them, thanks to soon-to-be 12-year-old Ryan Sholin of Soldotna. In the face of a difficult situation, young Sholin didn't hit the panic button. Instead he did what his instincts told him to do.

"When I saw Ricky go through the ice I dropped to my knees, crawled over to the hole on my belly and put my snow skate out to him," Sholin said. "I am just glad I was there at the right time."

Even as the gaping hole into the frigid waters spread out before him, Sholin knew that the only thing to do was to pull his friend to safety.

"I knew that if I didn't do something that Ricky might drown," Sholin said. "He was my very first friend, let's just put it that way."

It all started as the boys waited at the finish line of the Iron Dog snowmachine race in Fairbanks, waiting for their dads to take 11th place in the annual 2,000-mile race from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks.

"We decided to go back to the hotel," Bailey said. "The finish line was about 300 feet from our hotel, and the fastest way to get there was along the river."

But lying in wait on the river was a thin layer of ice where, according to Bailey's mother, Debbie Burman, a Jeep had gone through earlier this winter.

"I had turned around to see what (my friend) Cody (Hunrud) was doing and the ice broke through under me," Bailey said. "The water went up to my eyes and even though we were only 10 or 15 feet from the shore, I never touched the bottom when I went under."

Sholin stood near the gaping hole and, knowing that his weight centered at a point below his feet would increase his chance of going through the ice as well, decided to lay on his stomach to spread the weight out.

"When I asked him how he knew to do that he just said that he did," Sholin's mother, Crystal said. "We talked about what to do if an accident happened, but I don't think we ever talked about what to do if somebody fell through the ice.

"We are so proud of Ryan, proud that he knew what to do in an emergency. It was kind of heroic when you think about it."

Heroic indeed. Sholin came to the rescue weighing in at 78 pounds and standing 4-foot-8, compared with Bailey, who stands 5-3 and weighs around 125 pounds.

"It wasn't that hard to pull him onto the ice," Sholin said. "I have a lot of upper body strength for being pretty much the smallest kid in sixth grade."

After Sholin helped Bailey to the ice, the danger of the ice breaking underneath them doubled.

"We rolled away from the hole before we stood up again," Sholin said. "We knew that we had to keep our weight spread out and that if we stood up we might have broke through the ice again."

The soaking wet kids didn't feel the impact of the what-if's and the true possibilities of their situation until after it had passed.

"I just don't think the kids had a clue," Burman said. "I was very impressed with Ryan, but it really didn't hit me until about a half-hour after it happened -- the possibilities are still hitting me."

But if the roles had been reversed, would the outcome have been the same?

"I think Ricky would have done the same for me," Sholin said. "I know he would have done the same for me."

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