SENECA FALLS — A quick-thinking tugboat operator in town for Canal Fest helped save the life of a town resident who found herself in peril after jumping into the Cayuga-Seneca Canal Sunday night to retrieve her phone.

Bill Ford, who lives in Wayland, Steuben County, was docked in Seneca Falls with the restored Ronald J. Dahlke, the oldest-working tugboat in New York state.

Ford was getting ready to head into Lt. Cyrus Garnsey III VFW Post 1323 via the lodge’s canalside entrance when he heard a woman crying for help about 6:45 p.m. The woman was struggling to cling to the south wall of the canal near the Ovid Street bridge, Ford said Monday as he prepared to pull the tug out of Seneca Falls and back to its home port at Beacon Bay Marina on the east side of Cayuga Lake.

“I was across the canal,” he said. “It was just fortunate that I even heard it.

“I was like, ‘Did I just hear a cry for help?’ ”

He had.

Ford ran over the bridge to help.

“She was trying to dig her finger nails into the concrete (wall),” Ford relayed.

He convinced her to try to float on her back, take a deep breath and relax as best she could. It worked, Ford said.

“I was in the Navy,” he said. “That’s the first thing they teach you: How not to drown.”

Ford said he made a descent down the canal bank, took off his Hawaiian shirt and knotted it like a rope. She was able to get a hold of it.

“I said, ‘My name is Bill, and I’m here to make sure you don’t drown,’ ” said Ford. “She calmed down just knowing that somebody was there to help her out.”

Ford said he did not observe any flotation devices along the canal bank.

Town police were on the scene quickly; within minutes, the fire department’s water-rescue team arrived by boat and plucked the victim out of the water.

She was taken to a waiting ambulance and checked out. Aside from a minor scrape on her finger, the victim — police did not name her — was fine and refused treatment.

Ford said the woman didn’t realize how deep the water was — it’s about 14½ feet — when she made the decision to jump in to retrieve the phone she had dropped.

While Ford said he was no hero, Peenstra wasn’t so sure.

“I heard what you did, and I just want you to know that I appreciate it,” Peenstra told Ford Monday morning after coming down to the canal port to thank Ford for his actions.

The Seneca Falls police chief said it “sounded like without his quick reactions, things could have turned out worse.”

A number of other factors helped ensure the event didn’t end in tragedy, Peenstra said.

“The fire department had the boat in the water (because of Canal Fest), which is somewhat rare,” he said.

Additionally, said Peenstra, police and North Seneca Ambulance personnel were nearby as well.

And, while others apparently heard the woman’s calls for help, it was Ford who took action, Peenstra noted.

As for the phone, it wasn’t recovered, police said.

Ford said that after his experience Sunday evening, he’s got some advice to impart:

“Don’t chase your phone into the water.”

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