"I was within a foot of him when he went under the water and slid away," said 69-year-old Frank Jessel, a lakeside resident whose efforts to rescue two young boys from the numbing waters of Lake Jackson near Manassas Tuesday afternoon came only seconds too late.

What had begun as an adventure for three Prince William County youths who played hooky from Marsteller Middle School to play on the ice that glazed the lake ended in mourning when 14-year-old Ronald Davis and 13-year-old Patrick Shanon Waller, both of the 1120 block of Dumfries Road, fell through the ice and drowned.

A third youth, Robert Graver Jr., of the 11000 block of Dumfries Road, watched helplessly from a dock as his two friends struggled in vain to stay afloat until rescuers could reach them.

Only a few hours earlier, the youths had cursed several lakeside residents who cautioned them against going out on the treacherous, inch-thick ice.

Jessel said he heard a scream for help and ran across the ice toward the youth, pulling a canoe behind him. When he was within 20 feet of the youth, who was clutching a fragile shelf of ice, Jessel said, he fell through the ice himself and barely managed to struggle into the canoe.

"Hold on, hold on!" Jessel said he shouted as he made his way to within one foot of the boy. But the ice shelf gave way and the youth disappeared beneath the water.

Several other would-be rescurers, including several members of the Lake Jackson Rescue Squad, also fell through the ice, but all survived.

Waller's body was recovered Tuesday by Prince William County police divers, and Davis' body shortly before noon yesterday.

Although there was a drowning at the lake several summers ago, no one had fallen through the ice and drowned at the lake, which is popular among school children for skating, according to Lake Jackson rescue workers.