Palantine Diver saves swimmer in distress

Lt. Steve Forton of the Palatine Fire Department saved a struggling swimmer during a triathlon at Twin Lakes in Palatine on Sunday

To hear Lt. Steve Forton tell it, Sunday was just another day at the office.

Just as in years past, the 29-year Palatine Fire Department veteran rode a Sea-Doo personal watercraft out to his assigned post monitoring the first leg of the Twin Lakes Triathlon.

But this time out, Forton's quick actions narrowly averted a tragic drowning among the nearly 500 competitors.

After several groups of 60 athletes each splashed through the 700-meter swim without incident, he saw a man trailing behind the pack signal for help.

"I sped over and figured he'd just grab onto the side (of the watercraft), but as I reached he sunk straight down," said Forton, who then jumped in the water. "He went under."

Though his flotation device kept him from diving under, Forton jumped in and managed to grab the man's arm, holding him above water until backup arrived.

"It was like a movie. ... You just saw a hand," said Battalion Chief Randy Freize. "A couple more seconds and he would have been at the bottom of the lake."

After nearly 30 years on the dive team, the rescue was just a reflex for Forton. Twenty of the department's firefighters train monthly in pools, in open water, at night, in the cold or at the bottom of Twin Lakes, where a van was purposely sunk last year for dive rescue training purposes.

"I look forward to the good outcomes because that's not always the case," said Forton. "Too many rescue operations turn into recovery."

Freize said just last month in Algonquin, a swift water drill turned real when a child walked into the river and got swept away in the current. He also recalled an incident at Twin Lakes nearly 20 years ago when he and a partner tried to save a 16-year-old who drowned while trying to swim to an island.

Along with the 10 firefighters who manned boats and Sea-Doos Sunday, police and more than 100 volunteers and staff helped ensure safety at the triathlon, which is put on by the Salt Creek Rural Park District.

"The fire department was fantastic," said Diane Hilgers, park district superintendent of recreation. "We couldn't put on an event like this without everybody pulling together."
The unidentified swimmer rescued Sunday - who firefighters believe to be in his mid-30s - remained conscious the entire time and was apparently uninjured. He signed a waiver refusing medical attention and went on to complete the race.

"(Forton) did exactly what he was trained to do," said Freize, who plans to write up Forton for a commendation. "We're very proud of him."