Volunteer captains Allan Redfern, Christine Maino, Kathleen Sprague, and Barb Gaviani. Photograph by Drew Christhilf.

It was an unusually cold, dark, moonless, Autumn night. John Mongelli, Christine Maino, and I were putting WaterFire tender boats away after one of the last fires of the season. All the equipment had to be broken down and put away. The goal was to rid the site of all evidence of the many thousands of attendees from the night before. And it was always an impressive achievement.  Or, was it a dream?

Except for the unusual low temps, it was a night like many others. At least that’s what we expected. We stuck together with our boats and passed through the hurricane barrier. Except for our wake, the water was calm. We pushed the throttles forward like we never did when we were on the river. It was beautiful. Minutes later we slowed and aimed for the dock. It wasn’t well-lit but we knew it well, after doing the trip so many times. We made short work of the spring lines that we had to use to let the boats safely, and securely, rise and fall with the tides, without escaping.

Christine finished tying up and stood back. She and I usually worked together, and we took turns as captain of our boat Prometheus. John was one of the first volunteer boat captains, if not the first so between the three of us we had over sixty-years-experience behind the WaterFire wheel.

I finished next and stepped back, then glanced over at Christine. She was dressed in several layers for the cold. She took a step forward to the edge of the dock. And, then another step forward, out over the water—and—she went down. Feet first, without a sound, without a ripple. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I kept looking but there was nothing to look at.  

Christine was gone. Without a trace.

I jumped to the edge of the dock and yelled “John!

I reached in the water and swirled as deep as I could but came up empty.

“John, Chris is gone…in the water.” He looked at me like I was nuts, and looked around to see Christine, but she was really gone. 

“Here, she went here.” I yelled “Here!” John got the picture.

“Grab my feet” I yelled, and he did. I took a deep breath and lowered my head, arms and shoulders into the frigid dark water and swept my hands as far as I could reach in all directions.  

Nothing! But I couldn’t give up. If I came to the surface it was giving up on her. And there was no time to spare. I pulled against John to grab every inch of distance possible, and then something touched my hand…I grabbed at it, whatever it was. Was it hair? It could be hair, and I pulled as hard as I could, without pulling the hair right out of her head and losing her again. The layers of clothing were incredibly heavy underwater, with Christine sandwiched in the middle. Then I found a piece of her coat. That was easier to manage, and I pulled her toward the surface as quickly as I was able.

As soon as John saw her break the surface he jumped and grabbed her and pulled her tight against the dock. I joined him. It took both of us to pull her out of the water. We turned her onto her side, and then to her stomach and started to use long-ago-learned lifesaving techniques. Suddenly, then came convulsions and the seawater gushed from her lungs and mouth and she came back to life—a life that we were worried she had lost.  

It was nothing short of a miracle. None of us, including Chris, knew why she walked off the dock. She didn’t intend to. I was reminded of the Olympics diving competition, where you look for a smooth entry in the water. She was perfect. She snapped out of her trance after she went under and struggled to get to the surface, but for all her effort, she just sank deeper in all her saturated layers of clothing. She gave up fighting the losing battle and was headed for the bottom. She told me later she just knew she was a goner until she was pulled up on the dock.

Chris recovered quickly and refused a ride to the emergency room. She even drove herself home that night, after changing into some dry clothes. 

Everyone, of course, heard about it. John and I were considered lucky lifesavers of a sort. From that lesson, everyone out in the bay at night had to actually “wear” a life vest. Chris became a household word, but by her last name. Anyone who fell in the water after that night was pulling a “Maino.”  A “Half-Maino” if you didn’t go all the way under. The coined words even spread through our Kansas City and Sharon, Pennsylvania WaterFire volunteers. John and I were happy just to have been successful. As I said, it was a miracle. 

Oh yeah, and it’s a good thing we like Toll House Cookies—it’s the other thing she is famous for. Every time Chris bakes a batch, which is quite often, I think John and I might be getting a little more than our fair share.

– Allan Redfern

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