After a brush with tragedy, photographer Rogier van Bakel honored local heroes the best way he knew how.
One night last January, my 13-year-old daughter, Jolie, didn’t come home. She and her best friend, Julia, had gone out to play on the frozen lake near our Somesville home, on Mount Desert Island. They were supposed to be back by 4 p.m., a little before dark. By 5 p.m., it was snowing, well after dusk, and I was frantic with worry. Julia’s mom and I figured out the girls had gone snowmobiling with Julia’s dad, Eli. A set of sled tracks trailed off towards the center of the lake, shrouded in inky darkness.
Our hearts beating in our throats, we called emergency services. Within the hour, a search-and-rescue operation was underway, joined by the Maine Warden Service and local volunteer fire departments from the towns of Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor, and Tremont.
Around 6:45, we got confirmation that the snowmobile tracks ended in open water. The rescue teams were all but certain the three of them had plunged through the ice. By then, the snow had stopped, but the temperature was dropping. With each passing minute, our fears increased. When I heard a radioed phrase with the clearly audible word “bodies,” it almost sent me to my knees. It’s okay, one of the firefighters said quickly, and he put his hand on my arm. It was only a message to say that, farther up along the banks, extra “bodies” — more personnel — had arrived to join the search effort.
Despite the cold, my brain had entered a feverish state. I anticipated every word crackling over the first responders’ radios with simultaneous dread and hope. What little positivity I’d first mustered was fading.
Then, just after 8 p.m., we heard news that made me weep with relief. Julia, Jolie, and Eli had been located on a cliff near the lake — they’d climbed ashore and trekked to the highest perch they could find. Some four hours after their icy crash, their clothes still sopping, they were hypothermic but clinging to life. The firefighters carefully extracted all three from the treacherous site and carried them to waiting ambulances. Eli was the worst off, having given the girls his upper-body clothing. A first responder lay on top of him during the 20-minute ride to the hospital — still the best way to transfer life-saving body heat to a hypothermia victim.
All three made a full recovery.
Days later, when I started thinking about how to repay those first responders, I felt that a thank-you letter didn’t cut it. I sent one anyway, and my wife stopped by the fire departments to convey our gratitude in person. But I also made this offer: I would make portraits of the firefighters, right there in their firehouses, as a gift to them and their loved ones. I’ve been a professional photographer for 13 years and know my way around cameras and lights. I hoped I could present these men and women in a way that showcased their selflessness and mettle.
Over the course of several weeks, I made portraits of 43 firefighters. What moved me when I got them in front of my camera was how ordinary they looked — and how exceptional at the same time. Nearly three-quarters of Maine’s fire departments are staffed entirely by volunteer firefighters. They sign up to do things we are genetically wired to run away from. I watched some of them change from their daily-life clothes into their firefighter garb, and the transition seemed to make them all a little taller, tougher, steelier — even the banker, the accountant, and the innkeeper.
Jolie doesn’t like to talk about her ordeal, but I know it changed her. She hasn’t lost her appetite for wintry adventures, but she is perhaps a little less carefree now. She is also a little more mature and seems to appreciate family life more. The portraits have reached a wider audience than I expected, with attention from magazines and local news outlets, even a nice mention by The New York Times. The recognition is gratifying, but it’s nothing compared to the joy of having my girl back — saved by men and women from my community who have our lifelong gratitude.