Elderly man who lost ring during rescue gets it back

Rescuer had taken ring for safe keeping

fights bureaucracy to return it

May 10, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

When Vivian Holley got tossed from his boat into the choppy, cold Patapsco River off Fort McHenry Saturday afternoon, he very well could have lost his life, never mind the gold ring he was wearing.

That both were saved after Holley spent 90 perilous minutes in the water is testament to the quick-thinking rescuers who not only tossed him a life-line but also grabbed the ring as it started to fall off his finger and disappear into the water.

In the chaos of the rescue effort, Cathy Isphording, one of the passengers on the sailboat who helped save the 84-year-old Holley and a friend, stuffed the ring into her pocket. But she didn't get a chance to return it before firefighters sped Holley and his friend, who had also fallen into the water, to the hospital.

She found it the next day, but only had what she erroneously thought was the first name of the man she had helped save, William. Her brother drove to Baltimore and handed the ring to a police officer at the Central District station house around the corner from City Hall. He returned sullen, quite sure the police wouldn't brother trying to find the owner, that the ring would languish unclaimed in the bottom of a drawer.

But a diligent police officer took up the cause and on Monday she found the ring in an envelope marked "William," tracked down Holley and returned the jewelry to him in his hospital room at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. The reunion between man and ring happened just hours before Holley was discharged, and he returned smiling to his home on West Saratoga Street.

He had gotten the gold ring with cut stones as a gift from his girlfriend last year on Father's Day.

"Honestly, it's a miracle they survived," Baltimore Police Officer Helen Mateo said of Holley and his 73-year-old fishing companion, Henry Harris, shortly after returning from the hospital.

The officer has patrolled city streets for five years and has seen people at their worst and most vulnerable. Monday was one of those rare good days to be a cop. "It was very rewarding to give him his ring back," Mateo said. "He was very happy."

The reunion of the ring led to a reunion of the boaters. Isphording called The Baltimore Sun on Sunday to find out if police ever did anything with the jewelry. Holley's daughter, Bonnie Hawkins, called the newspaper on Monday from Buffalo, N.Y., looking for the number of the Fire Department so she could thank them.

The daughter then called her father's rescuer, and tears were shed.

"He's the only living parent I have left and I want to keep him," Hawkins said.

Holley said he goes fishing often with Harris, who owns a 22-foot power boat called Lizzy 2. On Saturday, they braved cold, windy weather and made it beyond Fort McHenry, into the Patapsco River to the Ferry Bar channel.

The National Weather Service had posted a gale warning, and Harris turned back to shore before either could cast a line. It was too late. A gust of wind and strong waves pummeled the boat, and Holley said "water started coming in. We saw that the boat was going to sink."

Lizzy 2 overturned and threw both men into the water. "The last thing I saw was the nose of the boat sticking out of the water," Holley said. "There was nothing left of it." Both men were wearing life jackets. "That's the only thing that saved us," he said.

They spent 90 minutes bobbing in the water before someone aboard a sailboat noticed them. Isphording was out with family members who had set up the cruise as a Mother's Day gift. They had debated whether to chance the rough weather, but eventually went out in their 37-foot craft.

But after an hour, Isphording's uncle, an experienced sailor, turned back toward shore. Her brother then saw the two men floating in the water. Using the motor, they circled the sailboat around, getting to Holley first. They tied a life jacket to a rope and threw it to him. He was able to get it under his arms and the sailboat crew pulled him in to the boat.

Keith Jeffries, the boyfriend of Isphording's daughter, noticed the ring slipping from Holley's finger and took it off as they struggled to pull him aboard by grabbing his pants. They then threw the life jacket to Harris, but he was too frail to secure it. They held on to him by the side of the boat until Baltimore firefighters arrived in a rescue vessel.

Holley and Harris were transferred to the fire boat and sped to a dock near Fort McHenry, where ambulances took them to Shock Trauma. After docking, Isphording and her party all went out for a beer.

Isphording found the ring the next day. "It had been burning a hole in my pocket," she said. "I thought, 'This poor man wants his ring back.'"

She thought his name was William and she thought she remembered a phone number he had mumbled after being saved. She was wrong on both counts. Her call to The Sun triggered a call to the city police public affairs office. An officer there called the Central District station and got Mateo at the front desk.

The officer hunted around and found the ring, then obtained a police report on the rescue and located the men at Shock Trauma. At first, she took the ring to Harris, who said it wasn't his. She walked down the hall and found Holley.

Holley had moved to Baltimore from Richmond, Va., a half-century ago and spent 31 years working the docks as a longshoreman. Before that, the Army soldier had ridden across Europe and into Berlin in World War II as a motor pool mechanic.

Holley said his girlfriend gave him the ring, but he evaded further questions. She had been a friend since he was a kid, he said, and she had told him about the ring long before she gave it to him.

Even his daughter in Buffalo doesn't know much about her father's mysterious companion — whether she's a romantic or platonic "friend." She laughed and said, "Your guess is as good as mine."

The man has his ring back, and that's all the really matters.

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