Mac, the hero


Maura Tracy

Maura Tracy’s dog Mac may not look heroic, but he saved her life.

If someone were on the shore that day, they would have seen a small girl walking across the ice, her small dog following closely behind. They would have heard the crunches of her footsteps breaking the eerie silence that loomed over Lake Michigan. No wind. No waves. They would have watched anxiously as Maura approached the edge of an iceberg, her dog now running ahead, joyfully unleashed. They would have heard the distinct crack of the ice splitting. They would have watched Maura disappear beyond the last visible ice.

    But no one was there. Except the family terrier, Mac.

   On February 18, 2019, West Ottawa had yet another snow day. The road conditions were terrible, leaving Frosh. Maura Tracy with little to do at home. She searched for an activity, something to take her mind off the countless hours of staying inside. Maura decided to take her dog Mac for a walk at the lake.

   Maura and Mac set out at 12:15 in the afternoon to begin the trek through the snow. The ice on the lake was thick, allowing them to walk across easily.  “I had been out on the ice before and I was like, ‘It’s usually pretty sturdy, I’ll be fine,’” Maura said. 

   The bitter air nipped at her fingers as she held Mac’s leash. They walked out until they could see where the ice ended and the water began. Not a person in sight. 

   When they had walked out as far as they could go, Maura let Mac’s leash go, allowing him to wander. She stood in peace, appreciating the atmosphere around her.

   She was too close to the edge, standing on thin ice, when the peace was interrupted by a loud crack. She fell ten feet down where she miraculously landed on a shelf of ice. She brushed the snow off of her coat and looked up. The iceberg towered over her. “I split my lip open, and I was stuck there,” Maura said. Wiping the blood off her lip with the back of her glove, she told herself,  “Whatever, I just had a fall, I can get back up, there will be a way out,” Maura said.

   She began to search for a way out, trying various techniques to see what would work. “I tried to climb back up but there was no way. I tried to walk to the left until I got to a point where I couldn’t go any further without going into the water. I tried the other side, nothing really worked,” Maura said.

   Two weeks before, Maura had dropped her phone in the sink. “I hadn’t thought to bring my sister’s phone or anything,” Maura said. She had no form of communication.

   Sitting on the five-foot ledge, Maura tried to think of the positives. It was not wavy, so she remained dry. She continued to tell herself, “Somebody will probably notice that I was gone. It’s probably okay.”

   But as time passed, panic began to set in. “After 30 or 40 minutes, I started to panic more and I started to yell for help, but I was too far out, so no one was close enough to hear me.” 

   The ten-foot wall of ice shielded her voice, muffling her cries for help. Mac, however, understood what needed to be done. Running back and forth across the ice, Mac barked loudly, hoping to alert someone of the situation.

Jane Frauenheim:

Jane Frauenheim and her daughter Katie had just started shoveling snow off the ice to create a space for skating.  They heard the barking. 

   “We saw the dog on the ice for 15 or more minutes. This dog kept howling and howling and then running out to the exact same spot on the far edge of the ice,” Frauenheim said.

   Concerned about the dog, Frauenheim and her daughter investigated. “We went a very little way out on the ice. We tried to call it to come in but when it came in it was not close enough for us to get it,” Frauenheim said.

   A sudden realization set in. What if the dog was crying for help? Frauenheim called 911.

Emma Tracy:

After about an hour, Emma Tracy, Maura’s older sister, realized her sister had been gone for longer than she had expected. “I decided to head down to the beach to check on her and see what was taking so long. I convinced my brother to come with me,” Emma said.

   The two noticed a police car parked by the beach, which was very concerning. “I remember asking the officer a ton of questions about what was going on, but he had just gotten there and didn’t exactly know. I had to explain that my sister had gone for a walk with our dog but wasn’t home which must mean she was out there,” Emma said. 

   The police advised that Emma and her brother head home, to prevent them from seeing the result of the search. “The whole waiting thing was terrifying, and I remember sobbing and continuously asking the police officer to let me go out there and look for her because that was my little sister and I needed to find out if she was okay,” Emma said. 

Angela Dershem:

Driving home from work, Angela Dershem, Maura’s mother, received a call from Emma.  “She was crying hard, and told me there was a police officer at the house who needed to talk with me, and Maura was missing,” Dershem said.

   Despite the sinking feeling setting in, Dershem focused on staying calm while talking to the officer. “The officer explained to me that a neighbor had heard a dog barking out on the frozen Lake Michigan and sensed something was wrong based on the intensity and duration of the barking,” Dershem said. “Upon investigation, the officers learned that the dog was ours and found that Maura was missing.”

   Arriving at the scene, Dershem watched as the firefighters suited up in preparation to search for a body in the water. “I have never been so terrified in my life.  It was hard to breathe, and stand,” Dershem said. It was a nightmare.

Ken Strobel:

Instructor Ken Strobel lives near the spot where Maura went missing. The police and firemen had already arrived when he stopped to see what was drawing all of the attention. “I stood up on the top of the deck above the beach and I was terrified. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as dramatic as that little dog running back toward shore, barking like crazy, then heading back out to the edge of the ice.” 

   Strobel was sure that the missing person was in the water. The dog ran to the farthest edge of the ice, with nothing visible beyond but open water. “I saw the brother and sister come up the steps along with an officer and I just couldn’t take it. I headed home. I didn’t want to be there when the tragedy was confirmed.”

Fire department: 

At 2:45 in the afternoon, the department received the call about a possible missing person on the ice. “It sounded like she went for a walk with her dog and went out on the ice and got near the end and slipped off,” Officer Scott Gamby said.

   Lieutenant Slagh went to the scene to get a closer look at the dog. “It finally hit us when the brother came walking up and said, “Hey that’s my dog, where’s my sister?” And that’s when the whole thing turned into a water rescue,”  Slagh said. 

Slagh decided to fly his drone out onto the ice to see if there was any sign of the girl.

   “He flew his drone out to the point that the dog kept running to and flipped the camera and boom there she was. She was down about 25 to 30 feet on a little shelf,” Another officer on the scene, Chief Gamby said. 

Jane Frauenheim

   Calling the station to prepare a truck, the men suited up. “We have only six suits, so we had other departments coming to help us,” Gamby said. 

   Lake Michigan was divided up by the large chunks of ice, making it difficult for the men to navigate. “There were two big ledges that we had to go through. We took twelve to fourteen foot ladders out there and we had twelve to sixteen people out on the ice with three ladders,” Gamby said. 

   Slagh was in charge of sending the men onto the ice. However, many of these men on the scene had just recently completed water rescue training. The men were inexperienced. 

   “This was a high danger rescue going out there. You can lose people really quickly,” Gamby said. “The more people we send out on the ice we have to be accountable for all of them. What if all of a sudden one of them disappeared?” 

   After climbing over the icebergs, the team had reached Maura.  

   One of the men made it down to Maura where he helped her climb the first ladder. Her fingers were barely able to grasp the cold metal to make the climb.

   “And then they made the process, she had to climb up each one of the ladders. The crews kept moving with her. We didn’t want to put too many in a spot, so the crews passed her off from one crew to the next,” Gamby said.

   Back on shore, Maura was reunited with her mother. The Tracy family thanked the first responders and took an ambulance to the hospital where Maura was confirmed to be safe and unharmed.

Mac, the hero.

    Upon Maura’s rescue, the people and families involved were elated to hear the news. “The relief at finding her safe and alive and the gratitude for all who helped will always stay with me.” Dershem said.

   “I’m definitely super thankful our dog Mac was there to let someone know something was wrong, he’s basically a hero,” Emma said.

   “I got a text from Jane that said ‘She’s safe, she’s rescued.’ I was overjoyed,” Strobel said.

   “Hopefully this story will help other kids who try to go on the ice.” This was probably one of our most successful rescues in history. The possibility of this becoming a tragedy was huge,” Gamby said.

   “Really the dog saved her life, she’s lucky the dog kept going back and forth,” Slagh said.