Teenage goalie rescues two boys from icy lake: 'It could've been bad'

Phil Gianficaro
Bucks County Courier Times (TNS)

How much longer, Jack Coryell wondered through his shivering panic. How much longer will I be able to last in this ice-cold water before my muscles begin to freeze and I can't tread water.

The frigid water began turning the boy's body numb. His heart raced. His breathing labored. His saturated thick sweatshirt and sweatpants making him less buoyant. A 14-year-old's thoughts went to a dark place, where a young kid's thoughts should never be forced to go.

"I thought lots of things," said Jack, a Lower Makefield resident and freshman at Pennsbury. "But I really started to think, 'What if we just can't get out in time?'"

Jack and his friend, 13-year-old Connor Brennan, tried to pull themselves out of the water after falling through thin ice at Lake Afton late Sunday afternoon. But each time they grabbed the edge of the broken ice, it snapped like peanut brittle. They screamed for help.

Then suddenly, help came streaking toward them on skates.

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Cory Hemberger is a sophomore goalie for the Neshaminy High School hockey team and the Philadelphia Blazers' 16U AA club team. He can play between the pipes from now until forever and not make two saves more important than those on Sunday.

Cory and a friend, Shawn Miller, a sophomore at Father Judge, were whacking a hockey puck across the lake ice. They had played a hockey game earlier in the day, and were just about to head home. Jack, Connor, and two other friends had come to the lake to mess around on the ice after having played two-on-two basketball nearby.

It was at that point a typical day of teenage fun changed.

"As Shawn and I were ready to take off our skates and get ready to leave, I saw these kids chasing a basketball onto the ice," Cory said. "It rolled far from where they were. Then one of the kids (Jack) fell through the ice, and then his friend (Connor) ran over to help him, but he fell in too. I could see the ice breaking when they tried to get out. They had to be so scared. They were screaming, freaking out, yelling for somebody to help them."

Cory simply reacted.

He grabbed his hockey stick and dashed toward the boys, some 40 yards away. Shawn's dad, Tim, who was sitting in his car nearby, yelled to Cory not to get too close to the hole, that the ice was too thin. The man's warning fell on deaf ears.

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"I saw them in trouble and skated toward them fast," Cory said. "I got to within three feet of the hole and extended the blade of my stick to them and told them to grab on. I pulled the first kid out. Then I had to get a little closer to the big hole because the other kid was farther away. When I got them both out, they walked off the ice. It was pretty scary for all of us."

Cory should have paused, some might say. Even for a moment, a second or two, to assess his own risk near the fracturing ice. But as two young boys screamed for their lives in icy water, the kid with the hockey stick decided there was no time to do anything but go.

"It was frightening, really frightening," Cory said. "You hear all those stories about people falling through the ice and getting trapped under there and never getting out. I had to do something."

Jack said he doesn't know what might have happened to him and Connor if not for Cory.

"You know, you're trying to stay calm, but you can't when you start to not feel your arms and legs," he said. "Then you see this kid skating toward you and you think, 'Oh, thank you, thank you!' We really don't know how we'd have gotten out of there without Cory."

Cory is the youngest of six children of Lisa and Andrew Hemberger. Only 16, he took on the mindset of a quick-thinking adult.

"Cory told us he didn't even think about himself at that moment," his mother said. "He just went to save those kids. We are so proud of him."

Added his father: "Cory knows it could have been him and his friend who fell through that ice, that he would have wanted someone to help him if that happened. He was just in the right place at the right time."

Days later, Maria Coryell's heart is back where it belongs. When her son phoned her after he was pulled out of the water and told her what had happened, it lodged in her throat.

"When I think of what could have happened if Cory didn't get to them, I don't want to imagine it," she said. "I am so grateful to Cory. I thank God he was there and did what he did, how he acted without hesitating. He is amazing."

It's called cold-shock response.

Upon falling into freezing-cold water, the body reacts. The subject involuntarily gasps for breath and begins to hyperventilate. This increased rate of breathing puts the person at greater risk for drowning, especially if panic sets in. Just a four-degree drop in body temperature causes hypothermia, which leads to shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness.

"They were so cold when I pulled them out," Cory said. "I don't know how much longer they could have stayed above the water. I just stuck my stick out and pulled them out. That's all I did."

Connor's father, Frank, understands Cory did so much more than that.

"I used to work in rescue," Frank Brennan said. "It's a game of seconds. Survival is a game of seconds. That young fella did more than he realizes."

His son is still too emotional to talk about the ordeal, one that lasted less than a minute but felt like terrifying hours, as he treat water in gym shorts and sweatshirt.

"It's still upsetting to him," Brennan said of the William Penn Middle School eighth-grader. "It was shocking. Talking about it reminds him too much of what happened."

Brennan and his other son heard sirens blaring on Sunday afternoon. They went outside their home, about a mile from the lake, and saw police cars and emergency vehicles racing by.

"We said, 'Wow, must be something serious for all this to be going on,'" he said. "Little did we know it had something to do with Connor."

The Coryells and Brennans are planning to do something special for their savior on skates. Cory Hemberger? He says he just skated toward the kids and reached out his hockey stick. Doesn't believe what he did was any big deal.

Thankful parents respectfully disagree.