The man pulled from Portland Harbor early Saturday morning during the height of the blizzard was a prominent Portland restaurant owner who had to be hospitalized briefly with hypothermia.
And it might have been much worse.
Harding Lee Smith, 43, chef and owner of The Front Room Restaurant and Bar and two sister restaurants, said he was securing lines to his sailboat at DiMillo’s Marina around 2:30 a.m. Saturday when he slipped off the dock and into the water.
“In retrospect, it was pretty scary,” said Smith, who was treated at Maine Medical Center for a couple of hours and has recovered.
Smith owns The Front Room, The Grill Room & Bar and The Corner Room Kitchen & Bar, and is planning to open another restaurant on Custom House Wharf.
Talking Wednesday about his fall into the frigid harbor, he seemed fairly unfazed. But those who were involved with the rescue described a frantic scene and a potentially grim outcome.
Around the time Smith fell, three marina workers happened to be doing their hourly check on all of the boats and dock lines. The marina workers heard someone screaming for help, but didn’t immediately see Smith in the water.
“We thought it was the wind at first,” said Frankie Quattrucci, a bus boy at DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant who was helping out at the marina during the storm.
Quattrucci, whose uncles own DiMillo’s, said that 15 minutes or more after they heard the screams, they saw Smith hanging from the line to his boat, with his arms above his head.
“His limbs weren’t really moving,” Quattrucci said.
Smith said, “I was pretty much out of it” as soon as he hit the cold water, which “saps your strength.”
Quattrucci and Andrew Holt, the assistant marina manager, rushed to pull him out of the water while the manager, Amanda St. Peter, called 911.
Maury Childs, who was sleeping in the boat next to Smith’s white sailboat, woke up to the sound of the commotion, Quattrucci said, and started helping to pull Smith onto the dock.
Quattrucci said it took six or seven minutes to get Smith out of the water. By the time they did, an ambulance had arrived.
Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said “the fact that people were there to react quickly certainly saved his life.”
LaMoria said the dock was extremely slippery, the wind was blowing at 50 mph and the waves were 1 to 2 feet.
“The conditions that were present that night were very hairy,” he said.
The water temperature in Portland Harbor around 3 a.m. Saturday was 40 degrees, said meteorologist James Brown of the National Weather Service in Gray.
Paul Painter, search and rescue controller for Coast Guard Sector Northern New England in South Portland, said the amount of time someone can survive in cold water varies, depending on such factors as height, weight, type of clothing and will to live.
However, said Coast Guard Lt. Nick Barrow, in water that cold, “somebody’s ability to function … is measured in minutes, not hours.”
LaMoria put it more bluntly: “Had nobody found him, it would not have been very long until he slipped into unconsciousness.”
Police described Smith as “severely hypothermic” when he was rescued, said Beth Poliquin, attorney for the city’s police department, which also responded.
A report filed by Officer Paul King didn’t indicate how long Smith had been in the water, saying only that the marina workers heard someone calling for help, then “located a male in the water near his sailboat.” The report identified the male as Smith.
Smith said Wednesday that he believes he was in the water for only five to 10 minutes.
He said he went to check on his boat several times that night.
Smith called the marina workers “very conscientious” and said he is grateful to them.
Quattrucci said Wednesday that he was glad they happened to be checking the boats when Smith fell in.
“It was pretty good timing,” he said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: