Celebrating more than 20 years of marriage, Lisa and Bill Saulle, of Van Buren, are self-proclaimed animal lovers.
After a terrifying experience Friday night trying to save one of their three dogs from the icy waters of the Seneca River, the Saulles are counting their blessings and giving thanks to those who saved their lives.
Lisa was putting away some groceries during the early evening of Friday, Dec. 15, when she saw two of their dogs, Jackson and Lucky, come inside from some playtime with Bill.
When Lisa didn’t see Kurtis, the youngest of the three dogs, she says something didn’t feel right.
With plans to go out to dinner the night before Lisa’s birthday, she quickly headed outside to help find Kurtis. Instead, she saw his paw prints in the snow with some fox prints nearby.
The pair of tracks led her to the Seneca River, which is just steps away from their backyard.
“He was actually in the water trying to get out of the water, up on to the ice,” Lisa described. “So, I had the leash with me. I bent down and clipped it on and I thought for a minute that I was going to be able to coax him out and that’s when I went in.”
Kurtis, a Great Pyrenees puppy, will be nine months old on Christmas Day. Lisa and Bill say he’s still learning about the boundaries of the backyard — things Jackson and Lucky know very well.
Although, Kurtis doesn’t look like a puppy, standing more than five feet tall on his hind legs and weighing 110 pounds.
“When I realized that I couldn’t get him out — I started screaming for help,” Lisa said. “I probably screamed for a good 5 to 10 minutes before the neighbor across the river came running down his hill. He had a rope, and he said, ‘Swim to me,’ and I couldn’t at that point. I just said, ‘I can’t do it.'”
The neighbor, whom the Saulles hope to formally meet very soon, used his kayak to bring Lisa a second kayak to help her stay afloat in the frigid river while he went back to his home to call 911.
Lisa says Kurtis was draped over her arms as she was clinging onto the kayak. At one point, it capsized, scaring Kurtis, causing him to swim away from Lisa.
“I started floating down river and then I started getting really scared because now I’ve lost sight of him,” Lisa said. “It started getting dark and it seemed like hours. I know it was only minutes. I heard him whimpering and I thought, oh my goodness, he’s not going to make it.”
Bill recently had a knee replacement surgery, making it difficult for him to help.
Before following the tracks in the snow, Lisa told her husband to take their four-wheeler and head in the opposite direction along the water in case Kurtis ended up someplace else.
The Onondaga County Sheriff’s Air One Helicopter was called in to rescue Lisa as she floated down the river.
The Plainville Fire Department set out by boat to rescue Bill, whose four-wheeler got stuck in the island near the river.
Just two days later, Lisa and Bill are still recovering.
After Lisa was rescued by helicopter, she was taken by ambulance to Upstate University Hospital’s Trauma Center for hypothermia treatment and trauma to her heart.
Lisa’s hands are red and purple — one of them required five stitches — an injury she says she can’t recall.
As for Kurtis, Plainville firefighters used dog treats to lure him to safety. With his soaked fur coat, Kurtis was carried away from the river and back onto land.
At the hospital, Lisa kept asking if anyone knew if Kurtis made it out of the river. Nurses at Upstate’s Trauma Center saw the news report Friday night and told Lisa her puppy was OK.
“The Plainville Fire Department — they’re so professional and they know their job very well,” Bill shared. “They risked their lives for our dog and I’m so grateful.”
Along with nurses, doctors, Air One efforts, and first responders on the scene, the Saulles say they’re grateful to their neighbor across the river.
“If I hadn’t had that kayak to hold on to and no one had heard me screaming, I don’t know what would have happened, honestly,” Lisa shared.
“He’s a hero,” Bill said. “If it wasn’t for him. My wife might have drowned and on [the day before] her birthday, so close to Christmas. It makes you just sit back and think, how precious life really is.”
The Saulles have never formally met their life-saving neighbor who lives across the river, but plan to do so very soon. They would also like to replace the man’s kayak that was lost in the river.
Lisa is reflecting on all that’s transpired in the past 48 hours with renewed perspective.
“[My birthday] it’s one I’ll never forget and one I’m very grateful to have had,” Lisa shared. “Thank you to the first responders that pulled me out of the water — got me to the hospital and to the trauma team there that warmed me up and took such great care of me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
With Kurtis safe and sound, the Saulles are looking forward to celebrating Christmas with him, Lucky and Jackson.
“If we have our lives and our family,” Lisa said. “We have everything.”