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CHARLESTOWN, N.H. — Charlestown Police Sgt. Michelle Dunning didn’t know for certain it was a plane crash when she responded to the Charlestown boat landing Wednesday morning for an emergency.

But she quickly saw one bright yellow wing of a Piper Cub airplane off shore more than 600 feet in the middle of the Connecticut River.

She said she hollered and heard silence. And then, in about a minute, she saw someone — the pilot, George Tucker, 27, of Ludlow, Vt. — swimming toward the New Hampshire shore.

“I could hear somebody yell or holler,” she said, “and the swimmer finally yelled back, ‘It’s just me, it’s just me.’”

Dunning said her training as an EMT was never to swim to a drowning person without a life vest, and she didn’t have one so she stayed on shore.

She said she and New Hampshire State Police Trooper Brandon Dean had joined her by then, and he focused on organizing the rescue crews arriving, while she focused on getting the pilot to shore.

“I kept throwing the rope. He almost got the whole way. At one point he was floating on his back. He finally grabbed the rope, and I told him ‘I’m an EMT,’” she said.

In water up to her waist, Dunning pulled Tucker closer to shore, and she said she “hunkered down with him in my lap” and waited for more help.

“He said his back hurt,” she said. “He was in a lot of pain.”

Tucker, the sole occupant of the small, single-engine plane, later told Dunning he’d had engine problems after taking off from Hartness State Airport in North Springfield, Vt., and in flying down the river, had clipped the high-voltage transmission lines that cross between Charlestown, N.H., and Rockingham, Vt.

An experienced pilot who works for the fixed base operator at Hartness, Tucker was seriously injured in the crash. He was in a Boston hospital Thursday morning having back surgery, according to Charlestown Fire Chief Mark LaFlam. While his back was broken during the crash, he still has feeling in all his extremities, LaFlam said.

Dunning, who got into the Connecticut River Wednesday morning in her full uniform and boots to help Tucker — minus her equipment belt, radio and phone — said that Tucker was losing energy as he tried to make it all the way to shore.

Dunning said she and Dean kept casting a large rope out to Tucker as he swam closer, and finally he reached it.

Dunning said getting Tucker stabilized and out of the water and up the steep embankment was a big challenge, and other emergency responders who came to the scene worked to devise a way to get him out of the river safely.

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Dunning said she was focused on keeping Tucker alive since she didn’t know if he had internal injuries. She said she was worried he would “crash” once his adrenaline let up. She held him in her lap as she crouched in the river and wrapped the rope around him to make sure he wouldn’t slip away.

“That was a long swim for an average swimmer,” she said, noting the police department measured it later with a laser at 630 feet.

“I can’t emphasize enough how brave he was to get out of that cockpit and swim to shore,” she said, being that he was in so much pain. Tucker later threw up on her uniform, she said, either from the pain or adrenaline, or both.

“In the moment, I didn’t care,” she said. “All I was thinking was ‘I gotta save this guy.’”

“He was so tough, he had such a great attitude,” she said of Tucker.

She said she cradled him for 15 to 20 minutes on the shallow edge of the river, waiting for more help.

Tucker had gotten himself out of his flooded cockpit, and made his way to shore. He had taken off his pants and boots because they were too heavy, she said Tucker told her. But that made holding on to him in the river more difficult, she said.

Finally, other rescuers came and helped put him on a backboard while he was still in the river.

Dunning said that Tucker is a big man, and while the backboard floats, it didn’t with him loaded onto it. The rescuers devised a way of moving the backboard, with Tucker strapped to it, up a long ladder brought by the Walpole Fire Department, and carried him up a path and finally into a waiting ambulance at the boat landing.

In an interview at the boat landing Thursday, as crews finished recovering the Piper Cub from the Connecticut River, Dunning said her training as a police officer and EMT helped her help Tucker. She’s been a police officer with Charlestown for eight years, and also is a dairy farmer in a neighboring town.

Crews from S.G. Reed’s heavy recovery team, of Claremont, and Dive Winnipesaukee helped recover the 1952 Piper Cub plane, free it from the river bottom and bring it to shore. The short fuselage of the plane was bent at a 90 degree angle and one wing was heavily damaged. The landing gear was dangling off the plane once it was lifted from the river.

Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration’s regional office in Portland, Maine, watched the recovery, which took several hours before the mangled plane was loaded onto a Reed flatbed truck.

The plane was taken to Hartness State Airport in Springfield for examination and study, said Justin Gierka, who oversaw the removal of the plane from the river, along with other FAA inspectors. He said it would be two weeks or so before the first report on the crash, after investigators had a chance to interview the pilot, any witnesses, and others involved in the case.

One of the plane’s two 18-gallon fuel tanks was leaking, according to Andrew Madison of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. Madison said that he believed most of the aviation fuel and oil had been contained and caught by absorbent booms he had put in place both Wednesday and Thursday.

Contact Susan Smallheer at