NORWELL — Marc Holler was watching hockey reruns Tuesday afternoon when his 14-year-old stepson and his two friends announced they were going for a walk in the woods behind the house.
Dress warm, Holler advised them.
The eighth-graders’ New Year’s Day ramble spurred a four-hour search-and-rescue after they got lost in thick swamplands bordering Wompatuck State Park, huddling together on a tiny spit of land in the midst of ice-cold muddy water.
Their rescue required a State Police helicopter and members of the Norwell Fire Department, who helped guide the boys out of the chest-deep water in insulated survival suits.
“I think a couple of more hours and we would probably have been talking about some serious frostbite and hypothermia,” said Norwell Fire Captain Jeff Simpson. “And obviously if it had gone on until the early morning hours, who knows what the outcome would have been.”
The three boys — Jacob Smith and Cormac Perry, both 14, and 13-year-old Harry Rego — escaped the swamp with only a few minor injuries.
On Wednesday, Jacob’s mother and stepfather said he was too embarrassed to publicly talk about the ordeal. But they filled in the details from his account: As sunlight waned the three boys, friends for most of their lives, set out into the woods, looking to reenact one of the survival TV shows they watch regularly.
They decided to turn back about 45 minutes after they started their journey, once they noticed the sky was growing dark. They set off in one direction, thinking it was the way home, but soon realized they were lost.
Once it became pitch dark, they followed power lines, hoping that would take them to a road. But soon they were picking through muck. Once they started traipsing into icy water, the boys decided to stop and wait to be rescued.
Smith was wearing boots, but only a sweatshirt on top. The other two boys had coats, but were wearing sneakers. They wrapped their sweaters around their feet to stave off frostbite, a trick they learned from television.
After about 90 minutes, their parents began to worry. Robin Holler, Jacob’s mother, called his cellphone again and again, irritated that he was not picking up. She checked his room and found his and another boy’s phones.
“For an hour and a half, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to kill him for not bringing his phone,’” Robin Holler said. “Then the fear started to set in.”
Jacob’s stepfather was not sure if they were still in the woods or if they had continued on to a friend’s house or to the center of town. He donned a headlamp and boots and went out looking for the boys, following their tracks in the snow.
Harry’s and Cormac’s parents had grown worried, too. Finally, Jacob’s sister called 911.
For hours, the families waited for word. Police began searching with dogs, but they were unable to navigate a path through the thick brambles.
Marc Holler continued to follow the boys’ footprints until they disappeared into the muck. Then, he started to whistle, he said. The boys heard him and began yelling.
The combination of high water surrounding the boys and low-hanging branches made it impossible for rescuers to deploy an airboat, Norwell Fire Chief T. Andrew Reardon said. An airborne rescue was not an option because the boys were near high tension power lines, precluding the Coast Guard from deploying a helicopter with a rescue basket, he said.
Instead, Norwell firefighters donned insulated survival suits and churned their way some 200 yards though the chest-high water in subfreezing temperatures, using a searchlight, nicknamed “midnight sun,” from a hovering State Police helicopter as their guide. The rescue took around four hours.
Jacob Smith later told his parents that as the helicopter swooped in overhead, shining down a floodlight, one of the boys turned to the others and asked in awe: “Did we do that?”
Each boy was given his own insulated suit to wear as they waded and swam toward waiting ambulances. One of the boys had the beginnings of frostbite on the three middle toes of one foot. Another had a gash on the bottom of his foot. All were released from the hospital.
As they waited to be rescued, the boys marked an X on the tree beneath which they had huddled for hours.
Maybe they will go back out to visit in summer, said Robin Holler, Jacob’s mother, but that is far from certain. “I’m sure they’ll stay away from the woods for a long time,” she said.Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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