Published May 20. 2014 4:00AM
New London - A lot of things went right on May 4.
Keith Mutch just happened to take a joyride from his home in Torrington to Ocean Beach. He just happened to have his ham radio with him that day, and he just happened to have the U.S. Coast Guard's radio frequency committed to memory.
And when Mutch noticed a 12-year-old Waterford girl and her dog struggling to paddle an aluminum canoe in the choppy waters at the mouth of the Thames River, Mutch was prepared to respond.
His actions set in motion what ultimately became the successful rescue of the girl after her canoe capsized, plunging her into the 47-degree water.
On Monday, state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and the City Council recognized Mutch, members of the Coast Guard and the crew of Cross Sound Ferry's MV John H. for their roles in saving the girl.
"I get chills just talking about it right now," Hewett said. "It's amazing because if they had not acted, it would have been a whole different story."
Hewett presented the rescuers with proclamations from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly recognizing their "courage, valor and good judgement."
Finizio and City Council President Wade A. Hyslop presented them with certificates declaring them "heroes of the city."
Mutch, who was walking on Ocean Beach, noticed the girl was having difficultly paddling an 11-foot aluminum canoe at the entrance to New London Harbor around 6 p.m.
"What really got to me was that the girl didn't have a lifejacket on, and the waves were crashing over the edge of the canoe," Mutch, 39, said. "That's when I booked it to my car to get my ham radio."
Mutch first tried calling 911 on his cellphone, but the cell service was not strong enough to connect, he said. He hailed the Coast Guard on his radio, and they immediately scrambled a rescue team.
As the Coast Guard prepared to launch, the girl's canoe tipped over.
The crew of Cross Sound Ferry's MV John H. saw the canoe capsize, found the girl and threw her life rings. The crew was able to pull her to the side of the ferry until the Coast Guard arrived.
The Coast Guard secured the girl on its 45-foot response boat and began administering first aid for hypothermia.
"We just let her know that she was going to be OK," Petty Officer Second Class Joseph Stoltz said Monday. "She appeared to be hypothermic so we wrapped her in blankets to get her warm and kept reassuring her that she was safe."
Stoltz said that when he and the other rescue crew members got the call, their training and experience took over.
"This is what we train for every day," he said.
In all, the girl was in the water for 15 to 20 minutes. She was treated and released at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. The dog swam roughly three-quarters of a mile back to shore.
On Monday, the Coast Guard honored Mutch and the crew of the John H. by presenting them with certificates and "bravo zulu" coins - a special recognition for a job well done.
"This is a maritime community ... we are a team effort and without you there would be a family grieving this week," said Cmdr. Jonathan Theel, the chief of response at Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound.
Despite the recognition from the state, the city and the Coast Guard, Mutch said he is just happy he was able to help.
"My reward," he said, "is that that little girl gets to live another day."