Two rescuers brave frigid water to save motorist

Fear rose inside George Cathey Jr. on Tuesday afternoon as his truck slid on a patch of ice, flew into a pond and began sinking.

“I was scared at first but then I just struggled to get my seat belt off. I told myself I’m not going out like this,” Cathey said Wednesday afternoon from his room at West Feliciana Parish Hospital.

Cathey lost control of his pickup when it skidded on a small patch of ice, then plunged into what’s known locally as the “Gator Pit” off Ferdinand Street near the old ferry landing in St. Francisville.

Firefighter Capt. Casey Phenald and Jarred Wunstel, a St. Francisville resident, went into the frigid water to rescue Cathey, 65, after he was trapped in the submerged vehicle for about 15 minutes.

“The water was up to my neck when they got me out,” Cathey said.

A resident of Winnfield, Cathey was in St. Francisville to visit his brother.

Cathey was driving around the area Tuesday afternoon, he said, when he spotted three American Queen riverboat tourist buses.

“So that’s when I drove down to the river to see the riverboat. On my way back is when it happened,” he said.

Cathey kept pushing the button down on his seat belt, trying desperately to unlock the latch. He had a pocket knife in his pocket he could have used to cut the seat belt, he said, but he couldn’t reach it.

As he fought to get out of the seat belt, Cathey said he couldn’t see anyone on the shore or in the water. Eventually, he heard sirens.

The seat belt finally popped free just as Wunstel and Phenald made it to the truck.

Cathey said after his seat belt came undone, he pushed the truck door open and Wunstel pulled him out.

Wunstel and Phenald tried to put Cathey on a boat that rescue crews brought to the scene, but couldn’t do it, Wunstel said.

The boat kept flipping over.

The two rescuers each grabbed one of Cathey’s arms and swam back to the bank of the pond, pulling Cathey with them, Wunstel said.

West Feliciana Fire Protection District No. 1 Chief Russell Achord said the two rescuers were heroes.

Phenald is a part-time firefighter in West Feliciana and works as a full-time firefighter with the Zachary Fire Department.

“It was cold out there. There was ice on the trees. It was a heroic thing for those two to go out in that cold water and risk hypothermia to save that man,” Achord said.

The fire chief said he can’t force any firefighter to go out into the water.

“They did it willingly. Phenald always goes above and beyond,” Achord said.

Phenald, who was working a 24-hour shift in Zachary Wednesday, said he was only doing his job.

“It was cold. By the time we got out of the water, it was hard to breathe. I know (Cathey) was pretty blue when we pulled him out,” Phenald said.

Phenald said he never learned the victim’s identity Tuesday and still didn’t know it on Wednesday afternoon.

Wunstel said he still felt the chill in his bones Wednesday.

“I needed to go in the water because that man had already been in the water too long,” Wunstel said of why he helped Cathey. “I was just doing my part. I will do anything for anybody.”

The rescue wasn’t easy, Wunstel said.

“I’m still sore. I must have pulled some muscles,” he said.

Cathey, who was discharged from the hospital Wednesday, also was sore Wednesday afternoon, he said.

The icy cold water was one of the worst aspects of Tuesday’s crash.

“When they got me back to the hospital, they had me wrapped up tight, trying to get my temperature up,” Cathey said.

When asked about the cause, Cathey said he believes he hydroplaned on an icy patch on the road because there was no other reason he would have lost control of the truck.

“At least, that’s what it felt like to me,” Cathey said.

West Feliciana Parish Sheriff J. Austin Daniel said a motorist called in the crash at around 1:30 p.m.

Achord said accidents have occurred at the corner of Ferdinand Street and the pond known as the “Gator Pit” in the past.

“Cars do end up in that water. Don’t know what exactly happened but the roads were icy earlier in the day,” Achord said.