By Mark Schieldrop
North Kingstown, Rhode Island – It all happened in less than a minute.
Three 13-year-old boys were walking on the ice on Potowomut Pond on Sunday afternoon.
They had a sleepover the night before and were warned not to go near the ice before they headed out the door.
At first, “we were skeptical about going on it,” said Riley Beard, a student at Davisville Middle School.
But one of them wanted to go onto the ice, so they ventured out despite the warnings.
Beard skates on ponds with his dad, so he has a sense of when the ice is safe and when it isn’t. He lags a few steps behind his two friends.
The ice began waving, swaying up and down. It began to crack. That’s when the first boy fell in. The other friend, Devan Ciunci, “started going towards him and I stood still because I didn’t want to fall in but he fell in too.”
“I was scared at that point,” Beard said.
But he had to do something.
“I started going towards them a little. I saw the ice wasn’t safe enough to go down to where they were and we were in kind of a bad place to be in, so I had to step back to safer ice and they kept breaking the ice around them, trying to get up on the ice,” Beard said.
They were screaming “help us, save us,” as they struggled in the shock of the numbing, ice-cold water.
“But I knew that if I went over to them I’d fall in,” Beard said.
Beard followed the thicker ice, inching along so he could get just a few feet closer. The two boys in the water punched and fought their way through sheets and chunks of ice to get closer to Beard, who got on his knees, afraid of both falling through and that his best friends might die.
“I went on my knees and I grabbed one of their hands and I just pulled them out of the water. I was just trying to pull them without me going in with them,” Beard said.
By then, three separate people had called 911, including a nearby homeowner, who took them inside to wait for responders. A small group of people had gathered, looking on, fearing the worst. And the boys’ parents started getting phone calls letting them know what happened.
Kristen Howard, Ciunci’s mom, said she was shopping in Garden City Center in Cranston when she got the call from her husband. She dropped everything and got in her car.
“I just wanted to get to my son, you can’t even imagine,” Howard said.
The three boys are all eighth graders and have been great friends since elementary school, said Melissa Beard, Riley’s mother.
“Riley was at a sleepover and I’m taking one kid to catechism, another to baseball practice and I get this call and I’m thinking, ‘you can’t be serious!’”
She said she’s unimaginably thankful and the day had been surreal. But there’s a part of her that’s upset. Upset that the boys went out on the ice. Upset because on Sunday night, she watched a 13-year-old boy tell her son that if it weren’t for him, he wouldn’t be alive.
“I haven’t even been able to wrap my brain around the whole incident,” she said. “A boy you know so well and care so much for, you never think they’re going to die that second.”
First responders as well as Riley’s friends and their families are calling him a hero, thankful that he was less of a daredevil and able to stay calm and save his friends.
For Kristen Howard, Riley is a boy she has watched grow up alongside her son. The three “are with each other all the time.”
Tonight, Howard said, Riley is a guardian angel.
“He truly is a hero,” she said. “He saved my son. He literally saved my son’s life.”
He might be a hero, but there is an important lesson to be learned for these three 13-year-old boys.
The Beards told Riley that they hope he learned from the experience. And chances are, they won’t be venturing out on thin ice anytime soon.
And a few hours later, Riley was off to Communion class.
Because a hero’s duty is never done.
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