Michael Jones could not ask for a better friend at his side than his ice-fishing buddy, Mike Fortunate, who teamed up with Grand Island firefighters to save his life on Saturday.
When Jones fell through the ice at a marina off Grand Island on Saturday morning, Fortunate was there to call for help on his cell phone, then hold onto Jones for dear life until rescuers arrived.
"Hold on! Hold on!" Fortunate screamed, as his friend struggled in the icy water. "Don't you even think about going under! I'm going to hold onto you!"
Jones, 27, of Buffalo, was in the water for 12 to 14 minutes before firefighters helped pull him from the marina. He was taken to Erie County Medical Center, where he was treated and released.
Meanwhile, Fortunate, 24, also of Buffalo, is being hailed as a hero.
"I thank God for such a good friend and that fire and police were able to respond as quick as they did," said Jones, when reached by phone Saturday night. "If Mike wasn't there, I would not be here right now."
Grand Island Fire Chief Gregory Butcher agreed.
"He owes his life to his friend, who held his head above water," Butcher said. "If he wasn't there, we would be effecting a recovery, not a rescue."
Jones was drilling a hole through the ice to fish off the docks at the River Oaks Marina, near Whitehaven and East River roads, when the accident occurred shortly before 9:50 a.m.
"There was like 4 inches of ice when we drilled it, and 4 inches of ice is usually pretty good for someone to step on," Jones said. "When I stepped on it, I looked over at my buddy and the next thing I know, I'm going down."
Fortunate was on the dock when he heard Jones screaming for help. He turned around to see his friend in the water, then reached down to grab Jones, but almost fell in the water, too.
While Fortunate said he's a big guy, he was not able to lift Jones, whose wet winter coat, boots and hunting bib added another 50 pounds to his 300-pound frame.
The water was at least 15 feet deep.
Fortunate called for help on his cell phone, but the 911 call initially went to Niagara County authorities. Fortunate grew angry, as he was transferred at least twice, before being relayed to Grand Island firefighters.
As the two friends waited for help to arrive, Jones clung to a stern cleat attached to the dock, while Fortunate hung over the dock and onto his friend.
It felt like hours.
"The current was pushing my feet and lower part of my body underneath the dock," Jones said. "If I would have let go I probably would have been pulled underneath the dock and that would have been it.
"Mike was just yelling at me to hold on and kept saying 'They'll be here soon.' I held on with all I had and he held onto me," Jones said. "Never in my life did I feel fear like that."
Fortunate tried to stay positive.
"I just kept telling him it was going to be OK, even if I didn't know it was," Fortunate said. "I was petrified. I didn't know what to do. I was doing my best, but there comes a point where both people can't hold on anymore."
Butcher, who happened to be in the area, reached the scene within a minute-and-a-half of receiving the call, he said. Butcher credited Fortunate with holding onto Jones long enough for emergency personnel to reach the scene.
Four Grand Island firefighters, led by Butcher, teamed up with two sheriff's deputies, first trying to get a rope around Jones' shoulders.
"We hoisted him with a rope and muscle," Butcher said. "We had to grab his limbs and pull."
Jones and Fortunate are co-workers at a collections agency in Buffalo. They've known each other more than three years, and have become best of friends, hunting and fishing together.
But after Saturday's mishap, Jones is going to put fishing on the shelf for a while. Fortunate said he's done for good.
"A lot of thanks to the Grand Island Fire Department and the sheriff's," Fortunate said. "Without them, we couldn't have gotten him out."
But Fortunate downplayed his role as hero.
"I don't know if it's that," Fortunate said. "I'd rather say I'm a good friend."