WHEELING, IL. - A 9-year-old Chicago-area boy was reunited with the Coast Guard helicopter crew that rescued him and two other relatives from the waters of Green Bay earlier this month.
"Thank-you," Tommy Alter said shyly Tuesday morning at Chicago's Executive Airport , in front of a gaggle of television cameras and reporters.
Alter, of Highland Park, Ill., was kayaking with his aunt, Alison Alter, and cousin, Zachary, off of Door County's Peninsula State Park on July 10. The kayak rental company contacted authorities when the trio did not return that evening.
Rescuers spent much of the evening and early morning hours searching for the group. A Royal Canadian Air Force crew spotted them at about 6 a.m. 10 miles offshore. A Traverse City, Michigan-based Coast Guard helicopter crew took the three to Menominee, Mich. and then a Marinette, Wis. hospital for treatment.
"Even though it was a red and yellow kayak, it was still pretty tough to see from the air," said helicopter pilot Lt. Dan Schrader. "We treat every case as if it's our own family members."
According to the Door County Sheriff's Department, Alison Alter said they kayaked from Peninsula State Park to Horseshoe Island, but on their way back to the park, Alter said winds picked up and caused them to drift into open water.
All three were wearing life jackets and did not leave the kayaks, but did not have a way to alert anyone for help.
Standing in front of the orange Coast Guard helicopter, Schrader recounted the events that morning with Tommy.
"I remember seeing you kick your feet and helping (the rescue swimmer) paddle back to the helicopter, so that was a big help, so thank you for doing that," Schrader said. "Remember, you got nice and comfy in the back, we didn't have peanuts or in-flight drinks."
"It was a very horrible, horrible feeling," said Leslie Alter of the moment she knew her son, sister-in-law and nephew were lost. "We just want to extend our very heartfelt thanks to the crew."
Tommy's mom says the reunion of sorts is helping provide closure for the series of events and is hoping others can learn from the ordeal.
"We would like to communicate to people that the lake is a dangerous place, and although we thought that it was very calm and a beautiful day to go out kayaking, the conditions can change," she said.
Schrader says for as many rescues as there are like this one - many more don't have this happy of endings.
"We were very grateful that we found them in the condition that they were," Schrader said.
As for Tommy, his parents say he's since gone swimming and gone back to Lake Michigan - just not kayaking, for at least the near future.
"I think he will go kayaking again, but he was thinking Lake Zurich (Illinois) as opposed to Lake Michigan," said Tommy's father, Jay Alter.
The kayak company said it is going to purchase waterproof cases for cell phones and limit the area where customers are allowed to travel. The Coast Guard recommends people to purchase a marine radio, if you plan on doing any open-water kayaking or boating.