Skate At Own Risk sign Old Reservoir Lexington
The Old Reservoir, located on of Town land, is a popular winter skating destination for community members. But "it’s really never safe to skate on unmaintained ice," said Lexington Police Captain of Operations Chris Barry. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

Monday, Dec. 26 was Haoyang Yu’s last day dog-sitting Copper. Yu’s friend had gone skiing for the long weekend, leaving Yu to watch over his goldendoodle.

After brutal cold on Saturday and Sunday, Yu jumped at the chance to take Copper for a proper walk that Monday afternoon, when the temperature rose to the comparatively balmy low thirties. He decided to take Copper to the Old Reservoir, where he unleashed the hyper pup.

Behind the “SKATE AT OWN RISK” sign ever present on the reservoir fence, Yu noticed several skaters enjoying the ice on the day off. He had told his own sons, both hockey players, not to join him at the Old Reservoir for skating, concerned it might be too warm. But his eldest, an eighth grader at Clarke, insisted on coming along. As a compromise, Yu admonished him to skate close to shore.

Having grown up in northern China, around Harbin, Yu had often skated on a pond in his own childhood. For ice safety, “my general rule of thumb is if I have my bare hand out, if it’s not freezingly cold, I wouldn’t put on my skates,” Yu said.

He also tried to gauge the ice thickness by looking closely.

When it is multiple layers thick, “it’s hard to really look through,” he said. But that Monday, “I can see clearly through: I can tell clearly it was just one layer of ice….I can even see the water moving underneath.” Still, after stepping on the ice and jumping on it, it seemed sturdy enough.

“I didn’t worry too much about [my son],” he said. Above shallow water, “if you really fall through, you get wet, you learn your lesson, next time you listen to me,” he thought.

As he was walking back along the reservoir dam, Yu decided he should leash Copper again since there were several people on the shore. While attempting to leash the reluctant pup, “all of a sudden I heard a big splash,” he said. “And I heard loud screaming and yelling.”

About 100 yards away, a skater named Vasili, 14, having sought to retrieve a puck at the center of the reservoir, had fallen through the ice. When another boy tried to pull Vasili out, Yu saw him fall in too.

Other skaters were able to pull the second boy out using a hockey stick – splashing water all over the surrounding ice – but Vasili, at about 185 pounds and nearly 6 feet tall, couldn’t make it out. As the water spread over the surrounding ice, Yu saw others back away.

Yu raced over the ice, another father behind him, and stopped before the damp patch. He realized he was still holding a blue rope – the dog leash.

Yu threw the rope toward Vasili while parents on the shore called 911. On his knees on the wet ice, he struggled to pull the teen out of water about 8 feet deep. “I felt like he was dragging me in rather than [me] dragging him out,” Yu recalled. But straining, he managed to tug him to safety.

Yu ran down the dam toward the center of the reservoir to pull Vasili out of the water. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

Yu’s son, who had been watching from a distance, later told his father how afraid he had been for him.

Once Vasili was out of the water, still lying on the ice, concern turned to getting him warm. Yu admitted that in his exhaustion, with pants and shoes soaked, he “was a little selfish” and wanted to keep his own jacket. He asked if anyone had an extra jacket. Two people came onto the ice to offer their own coats.

“At that point, I really felt like the whole community jumped into action,” he said.

Nikitas Splagounias, Vasili’s father, learned what had happened from a phone call. “It’s a phone call that no parent would like to receive,” he said.

He rushed to the scene with a blanket and clothes for Vasili. When he arrived, he saw others had already given Vasili dry clothes. That “just shows you what an amazing community Lexington is, and at the same time, how people just stood up in the time of need,” he said.

Splagounias knew of Yu as a fellow hockey parent. “He’s a father, and he acted like a father should… even though it wasn’t [his] child,” he said. “He sprang into action, and we will forever be in his debt for that.”

Splagounias did not know that Yu, an engineer, has spent the past few years of his life fighting a sprawling federal investigation that initially pegged him as a national security threat based on his work manufacturing semiconductor chips, as reported by the Intercept. Yu was acquitted of the great majority of charges against him this spring, and continues to argue that he has been selectively prosecuted because of his ethnicity. On the local level, CALex has joined regional organizations backing that argument; they’ve called on U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins to dismiss Yu’s case, and his single conviction of possessing stolen trade secrets.

After he saved Vasili, Boston Asian Radio and TV spotlighted Yu as an Asian American hero.

“At the end of the day, [Yu] ran towards danger when [some others] chose not to do anything,” Splagounias said. “That should not be diminished.”

Yu used his friend’s borrowed dog leash to pull Vasili out. When he learned what had happened, Yu’s friend gave him the dog leash to keep. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

Lexington Police Captain of Operations Chris Barry said that in his nearly 25 years working for the Town, he could not recall anyone falling through the ice in a life-threatening situation as Vasili did last week. 

But “we get a ton of calls where people driving by the [reservoir] are concerned when people are skating,” he said. And every year, the department advises community members not to skate: “It’s really never safe to skate on unmaintained ice.”

Despite the warnings, “it’s just a seasonal thing; people want to skate, they’re going to find a body of water to skate on,” Barry added. The department lacks the manpower to keep people off the ice at all times.

Some of Vasili’s hockey gear remained frozen on the reservoir the day after his fall. (Courtesy of Haoyang Yu)

Splagounias was stunned to see people skating the day after Vasili’s fall. Someone had even returned to the center of the reservoir to get Vasili’s hockey gear, which had been left lying on the ice. To him, “that is negligent.”

He recognizes the joy of skating on a pond. “It’s a great winter thing to do,” he said. “But…you have to be completely careful.” 

When Splagounias dropped Vasili off at the reservoir Dec. 26, he noticed most people were skating near the edge, and, like Yu, advised the boys to do the same. Earlier that day, the teens had tested the ice at a different pond, which cracked; they thought the reservoir, where many others were skating, seemed safer.

After Vasili’s fall, the Lexington Police Department tweeted a reminder that clear ice should be at least four inches thick for skating. “Even though it has been extremely cold the past 2 days it does not mean bodies of water that appear to be frozen are safe to be on,” the department wrote.

“The Town doesn’t go out there and test it and certify that it’s thick enough for X number of people to be on,” Barry said. “So the safest bet would be to stay off.”

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9 Comments

  1. I like to read that our Lexington Town police chief thank one of his Lexington Town father, Mr. Yu! A tragedy was avoided and we should thank the man who was brave and bold to risk his own life to save another! I hope our police chief thank you! I THANK YOU😘🥰❤️. Mabel Amar of Lexington.

  2. Thank you Sophie for a great story, and Captain Barry for contributing to this story. What a heroic act! Without Haoyang’s quick thinking and tremendous courage, and quite a bit of luck (for someone without a dog to have a leash on his hand at that fateful moment), I can’t imagine what could have happened. Vasili is a very lucky young man!

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