Thursday, January 25, 1979 — School was cancelled due to early-morning snow, which soon changed over to heavy rain, adding to a string of rainy days. By late morning, the rain thinned out and the thermometer hit 45 degrees. Not bad for January. Seven-year-old Alan Beck of Garrity Road and neighbors Wally Bullock, Bobby Castellano and his brother Anthony, grabbed a tennis ball and headed to a clearing in the woods behind Crowley Road.
As they tossed the ball around, it landed in a little stream, a very familiar one in the neighborhood. The stream crept discreetly behind several back yards and then passed under Middlesex Turnpike toward Mitre Corporation.
Oh well. Someone had to get the ball. Alan decided to go for it.
One problem: The recent rains had quietly swollen the stream into a potent river with an aggressive current beneath the benign, ice-encrusted surface. The last thing Alan remembers is reaching for that tennis ball. The rest is blacked out, and that’s probably a good thing. The current yanked his legs toward the Turnpike. His friends tried to grab his arm, but they were just little children themselves, and Alan was wearing a slippery yellow rain slicker. He slid underwater and out of sight. Gone.
After five minutes without oxygen, the brain risks irreversible damage. After 10 minutes, it’s all but guaranteed. Some studies say youth and cold temperature can extend brain survival past the crucial 10 minute mark. Others, such as a 2014 European study compiling over 2,000 cases, say 10 minutes are really all you’ve got no matter how cold the water.
The three boys ran as fast as their young legs could carry them to 1 Crowley Road, the home of retired ship-builder Rodney C. Peterson, 61. He came to the door and listened to a barely-coherent story of a friend in the water. His wife, Rowena, overhead the chatter and called the police. Inspector Gerald Crocker, who later described this as the worst call of his then 16-year tenure, arrived as fast as he could. The boys took him to the spot as fast as they could.
But the crucial 10-minute window of opportunity had already closed, and Alan was nowhere to be found.
Jeffrey Harrington, 14, was walking from his Foster Road home to meet friends at Mitre Field when he encountered Crocker hustling to the river and yelling about a lost boy. Harrington jumped into the waist-deep river without thinking and rummaged for several minutes in a futile attempt to see anything in the churning water. He wound up at Choate Hospital for hypothermia treatment. Sure, it was 45 degrees that day, but it was still January. That river was liquid ice.
Kevin Whalen of Boston, 27, an employee of Hybrid Systems Corporation in Bedford, was driving on Middlesex Turnpike when he saw what appeared to be an emergency. Rather than ignoring it as many would have done, he pulled over to help. He too plunged waist-deep into the river, dressed in business attire. He stuck his leg into the culvert to see if he could feel a body. The current almost dislodged Whalen’s feet from the squishy river bottom, he later told the press, but he managed to get out.
After a fruitless search, the trio suspected the current had forced Alan through the culvert and under the Turnpike to the Mitre side. They’d been searching the wrong side the whole time.
Whalen ran to the Mitre side and took the plunge again. After another few minutes of peering into the murk, he spotted a yellow jacket. It was Alan, some 30 feet from the road. He’d been underwater for nearly 20 minutes when Whalen dragged him out and administered mouth-to-mouth, just as Burlington EMTs Ed Franks and John Norden arrived and took over.
Rodney Peterson videotaped the rescue with a Bell & Howell super 8 movie camera. These are images from that video:
Aline Beck, Alan’s mother, was at home around the corner. “I remember seeing a police car going down the street. Then a neighbor came to me, I don’t remember who because some of this is blanked out, and told me it was Alan.” She doesn’t remember many details of that day due to the shock.
Alan’s medical reports say that upon arrival at Choate Hospital in Woburn, he had no pulse and hadn’t taken a single breath for some 25 minutes. A respiratory specialist from Massachusetts General Hospital happened to be visiting Choate at the time and caught wind of the situation. He arranged an emergency transfer to Mass General. Alan’s own doctor, Howard Potter from Lexington, rushed to Choate and rode in the ambulance to Mass General, trying to revive him the whole time.
Alan arrived at Mass General in a coma, flaccid, with zero reflexes. A machine started breathing for him, but he’d gone well over a half hour without oxygen. He didn’t regain a pulse until two and a half hours later. This was grim. His heart was back in action — but what about his brain? Was Alan still in there somewhere? Impossible.
Alan’s parents walked into his hospital room and found him wrapped in a labyrinth of needles and tubes. “We were just stunned,” Recalls Mrs. Beck. “We had little four-year-old Karen at home too.” This is when friends, family and neighbors — yes, neighbors — can really shine. Many neighborhoods today contain hermits who barely recognize each other, but this was 1979. The Becks’ neighbors cooked supper for them every night. “They fed us for a month. They took turns with Karen. She was suffering too. She was asking what’s happening. Of course we had to be home every night for her.”
For Alan, any recovery from here, even a partial recovery with lifelong brain damage, would qualify as extremely lucky. A full recovery would make medical history, something fit for the Journal of the American Medical Association — and that’s exactly where you can read about the unfathomable comeback staged by Alan Beck. He’s the focus of a 1980 JAMA case study called “Neurological Outcomes in Cold-Water Drowning.”
Day four — He was breathing on his own. He was in a stupor but responded to noxious smells.
Day seven — He was awake but had weak limbs. In fact, he couldn’t raise his arms. He couldn’t speak. He had “immobile fascia,” an expressionless face with drooped eyelids and mouth hanging open. He drooled.
Three weeks — He could walk with assistance, though his arms hung slack by his side. He still could not speak, and his tongue moved involuntarily, but he could follow complex commands.
Feb. 21 — He uttered his first words while his father, Albert, was in his hospital room talking to a doctor. Out of nowhere he said, “all right.”
Six weeks — He could speak, softly and slowly, sometimes pausing a long time to summon certain words. His handwriting was poor, but he could eat and use a toilet. His mother functioned as his at-home rehabilitation “doctor.” He took up his old hobbies again: baseball cards, coin collection, Tinkertoys.
Ten weeks — He reached a huge milestone. Notice the April 6 entry on the Beck family calendar.
Three months — His gross and fine motor skills were almost normal. He had re-learned to ride a bicycle. However, he was inept at baseball and could not tie his shoes. He spoke more quickly, but with incorrect grammar, mixing sequence and tenses. He did correct himself.
Six months — He played normally with peers and resumed swimming and diving, showing no fear of water. Before the accident, he was considered a gifted second-grader at Wildwood School, capable of third-grade work. So he hadn’t quite returned to his pre-accident sharpness, mostly due to pace. On an untimed test, he scored above the 95th percentile for his age.
This was a learning experience for the medical community. “That’s why it’s so important that medical personnel, especially those that don’t typically see hypothermia cases, do not give up, even if by all criteria the patient appears dead.” That’s what Dr. Frederick Southwick of Mass General told the Boston Herald American in a 1981 story about Alan.
Looking back, Alan’s clearest memory is waking up to a St. Patrick’s day party in his hospital room, with festive sounds and green decorations. Not a bad way to wake up! Alan went on to graduate Thomas College in Waterville, Maine. He lives in Lexington and works as software quality assurance engineer for a Waltham firm. He has hiked the Appalachian Trail and Mt. Kilimanjaro, and has traveled to 47 US states and 25 countries.
Though he doesn’t remember his brush with the abyss, just knowing about it has indeed impacted him, in a good way. “As a result of that experience, I’m not afraid of death. I was near death already, so it doesn’t bother me.” Alan and Aline are members of the United Church of Christ, Congregational on Lexington Street. Albert died a decade ago.
Jeffrey Harrington, the teenage passerby who searched for Alan and suffered hypothermia, now says the ordeal affected his parents quite a bit. “At the time, my mother only knew I was taken to the hospital and that a boy had possibly drowned. She was extremely frightened until she finally saw me in the hospital. My mother passed away last year but would occasionally tell the story to friends and family.”
But where is Kevin Whalen, the hero caught on camera? While Alan was in the hospital, prognosis unknown, Kevin stopped in and was overcome emotionally. “It was like he was his own son,” Albert Beck told the press. Aline Beck invited Kevin to dinner, but he never showed and never made contact again. Did he want to move on, fearing Alan would never really recover? If so, he was hardly crazy for thinking that way. Almost 40 years later, scientific studies reiterate that 10 minutes underwater are all you’ve got. Notice the conclusion at the bottom: