Anthony Alexander Jr. was resting on a park bench after playing basketball with friends when a girl ran up to him crying.
It was just before 3 p.m. on Feb. 21, and the 16-year-old said he was getting ready to leave the park after a fun Presidents’ Day away from classes and homework in the Philadelphia suburb of Collingdale.
Anthony jumped up from the bench and called 911, then raced down the hill with the girl to a find a frightening scene: three children who appeared to be between the ages of 9 and 11 were crying and flailing in frigid water, struggling to keep from going under, he said.
They’d been playing on a frozen pond when the ice suddenly broke and they fell in, their friend told Anthony. He knew he had to act fast.
“They were all screaming they were going to die,” he said. “And I told them, ‘No, that’s not going to happen today. I’ll get you out.’ ”
He quickly scanned around for something he could use to reach the kids, who had fallen in about six to eight feet from the edge of the pond. When he spotted a broken tree branch on the ground, he grabbed it and extended it across the broken ice.
“The first kid, a boy, grabbed the stick and I pulled him out,” Anthony said. “But I couldn’t reach the other two.”
He had no way of knowing when help might arrive, so he said he decided to walk onto the ice with the branch.
“One foot fell in, and then the other, and I could feel myself sinking,” Anthony recalled. “It was really cold and the water was pretty deep.”
He swam a few feet out and grabbed the girl closest to him, then pulled her to the side of the pond and safely out of the water. Then he went back in to get the third child, he said.
“It was freezing, but it wasn’t too bad because I wasn’t in [the water] that long,” he said. “I didn’t really have time to think about it.”
As he was swimming toward the girl, first responders showed up.
Sgt. Patrick Kilroy with the Collingdale Police Department ran down the hill and plunged into the water to pull Anthony out, then the girl.
But he said Anthony was the hero that day.
“If he hadn’t called 911 and hadn’t taken action, this might have had a very different and tragic outcome,” Kilroy said a few days after the water rescue. “He’s one quick-thinking kid.”
The three children were taken to a hospital for evaluation and were released that evening to their families, he said.
“They were out playing on a nice, sunny day and this all happened in a matter of minutes,” Kilroy said. “There’s an educational lesson in here about not walking onto the ice on a nice day. It’s thinner than people realize.”
Two police cruisers from other agencies crashed into each other on the way to the park, he added, but that did not affect the 911 response time.
“When I got there, it was a scary scene, especially as a parent,” Kilroy said. “It’s a huge relief to know that everyone is okay.”
“If this had happened to my kids, I’d hope that somebody would jump in to help them,” he added.
Anthony said that as soon as he looked at the pleading girl’s face, he knew he was going to help that afternoon. He said he comes from a “yours, mine and ours” family of eight children and was taught at a young age to give a hand to anyone in need.
“When I got home that day, I told my dad, ‘I saved some lives today,’ ” he said. “I was glad I was there to help. It’s scary to think about what could have happened.”
Anthony Alexander Sr. said he was in shock to see his son come home shivering in wet clothes, but he wasn’t surprised to hear that he went into the pond to drag the children to safety.
“Helping is a natural instinct to him, ever since he was little,” said Alexander, who works for the Philadelphia water department and raised Anthony as a single dad for several years until he remarried.
“I gave him a huge hug and told him how proud I was of him,” Alexander added. “This is a light-filled moment at a time when people could use some positivity. We’re going to run with it.”
He proudly recounted how Anthony remembered his father’s instructions for being in a crisis.
“Through it all, he followed the three C’s: He remained calm, cool and collected,” Alexander said.
Anthony said he wouldn’t mind meeting the kids he saved someday.
“I don’t know them, but I’m happy they’re still here,” he said. “There’s no way I could feel good about myself if I’d sat there on the bench and done nothing.”