WILKES-BARRE — The pilot, the nurse and the incubator baby.
During the 1972 Agnes flood, helicopters filled the skies over Wyoming Valley, making rescues of people off of rooftops and from hospitals and other locations.
One baby boy, Michael Reilly, then of Luzerne and now of Nescopeck, was born prematurely and was in an incubator at Nesbitt Hospital in Kingston. He was taken by helicopter to College Misericordia in Dallas Township, where a makeshift medical center was set up for flood victims.
He survived the ordeal and is now 42 years old and living in Nescopeck. The pilot — U.S. Navy Lt. Guy Nickerson — died July 29 in Florida never knowing the baby’s name and wanting to know what happened to him.
Nickerson’s son, Michael, of Louisville, Kentucky, wants to make that connection now. In 2006 he was able to find out that the baby had indeed survived, he said.
“I had planned to try and set up a reunion of sorts between him and my dad, but couldn’t keep it secret long enough,” Michael Nickerson said. “I called my dad and sort of blurted out, ‘He’s alive! The baby from the flood, he’s alive!’ I told him that I wanted to try and set up a meeting. I could hear the smile on his face over the phone at knowing he had survived, but he said no to a meeting. He explained that it was enough for him to know he had made it.”
During his life, Lt. Nickerson told the story of the incubator baby to family and friends repeatedly. His son said his father, a decorated Navy pilot who retired as a captain, said airlifting that premature baby was his biggest accomplishment.
But the two never met. The pilot died, taking to his grave the knowledge that he did save one baby’s life, but never knowing who he was, or what happened to him.
The nurse, Dorothy Tribus, is now 82, and living in Kingston. She vividly remembers the events of June 1972. She cared for Reilly, keeping him warm and protected during his transfers from Nesbitt Memorial Hospital to West Side Area Vocational Technical School, and then accompanying him on the helicopter to Misericordia.
Retired King’s College professor and author Tony Mussari Sr. wrote a book — “Appointment with Disaster” — that in one chapter details the entire ordeal that the incubator baby had to go through to survive.
Part of the story deals with Tribus and her devotion to the baby and how she stood by him until he was taken to safety. From the book:
“During the 1972 Hurricane Agnes flood, stranded for days in the flooded hospital, Tribus prevented the National Guard from commandeering the room where she cared for a fragile, premature baby.
“You and your officers can go to hell,” Tribus informed the soldiers, barricading herself in the room with the baby, Michael Reilly.”
It was a time of high emotions and heroics. This is about three people who were thrown together because of circumstance and disaster and how they formed a bond that would last forever.
Seeking a connection
Michael Nickerson was seeking help. He and his family had just buried their father, the pilot who came to Wyoming Valley to help evacuate people to safety. Michael said his father told this story about rescuing an incubator baby during the 1972 flood, and he told it hundreds of times over the years.
It took a couple of days, but thanks to Mussari and Michael Reilly’s family, The Times Leader found that incubator baby, and Nickerson was thrilled. He said it was “very cool” to finally know the story after having heard his dad’s tales over the years.
“Honestly, over the course of a nearly 30-year career in the Navy (my Dad retired a highly decorated captain), my dad did an awful lot of pretty amazing things, but the one thing he was always most proud of was flying in to rescue that baby during Agnes,” Nickerson said. “My dad was always too modest to take a bow for his heroics and he never told the story about (Michael Reilly) to brag, but I think it’s important that Michael at least have a chance to know my dad a little through me — what kind of man he was, some of his adventures, where he came from. I guess I think that my dad would like him to know.”
Nickerson said if his dad ever had actually met Michael, he would have regaled him over coffee or a beer with flying stories and jokes and that Michael would have thought he was a pretty neat guy.
“So telling Michael about my dad feels like unfinished business and I think maybe that by telling him about my dad, he’ll live on in some small way through his story,” he said.
Nickerson wrote a letter to the incubator baby, that began: “Somewhere in the Wilkes-Barre area, there’s a man/woman, about 42 years old who owes his/her life to my dad.”
Call for help
The letter details how Lt. Nickerson came to Wyoming Valley after flying a Navy H-3 Sea King helicopter home from maneuvers in the Caribbean. Tired from flying military missions and looking forward to returning home to sleep in his own bed, Nickerson responded to a call to help flood victims.
“What ensued was, in Navy lore, some of the most heroic and unsung non-combat flying ever done by Navy he-lo pilots,” Michael Nickerson wrote. “Three straight days of flying rescue missions. Plucking people from roofs and treetops in the worst possible flying conditions. Running survivors to higher ground and shelters.”
And one very special rescue happened that Lt. Nickerson would remember the rest of his life. His son calls it “family lore.”
He said his dad talked about the difficult conditions he confronted in airlifting the baby to Misericordia — dodging buildings, power lines, driving rain and heavy winds to load the baby and Tribus and taking them to Dallas.
“So, this story is for you, the little boy my dad took to higher ground,” Nickerson wrote. “See, he died today and I thought you’d like to know him a little.”
Lt. Nickerson’s son has detailed information about his father that he is eager to share with Reilly and his family. The pilot’s son said his father went on to become recognized as one of the best helicopter pilots to ever sit in the pilot seat. He picked up the astronauts from one of the Mercury missions, did a touch-and-go on the back of a swimming whale, survived a plane crash in the ocean and of course flew the famous rescue missions during Agnes.
“Of all the stories my dad told me about the Navy, and trust me there were hundreds of stories, your story, the little boy in the incubator, was always the one that stuck with me,” he said. “He’d wondered if you had survived and it haunted him a bit. This morning, he succumbed to cancer and he passed in his sleep. I like to think he’d be OK now with me telling you a little about him so maybe his favorite story could live on in you. He always loved a good story.”
Sitting around the kitchen table in Marlene Snedeker’s Nescopeck home Friday with her and her son, Michael Reilly,the mood got somewhat emotional. Both have been grateful since June 1972 when Tribus and Nickerson combined to assure the baby was cared for and taken to safety.
But on this day in Nescopeck, a facet of the story intrigued them that they hadn’t considered before — that the pilot never forgot that rescue.
“I really wish I could have met him,” Michael Reilly said. “I’d like to thank him for what he did.”
Reilly’s mom echoed her son’s comments. She said she wasn’t even aware of what was being done for her baby because she had been evacuated and there was no way to communicate. It was days before she knew where her son was and how he was doing.
They both met Tribus in 1989 and have exchanged hugs and thank yous. They look forward to meeting Nickerson’s family. Michael Reilly has two daughters, ages 17 and 11, who he wants to introduce to the Nickersons.
Reilly said he would like to meet all the people who helped get him through those days. Michael was born June 17 and weighed 2 pounds, 3 ounces. His due date was Sept. 23, which, ironically, was the day he was finally taken home.
Tribus, 82, said she always will adore Michael. She said she stayed with him the entire time until he was safe at Misericordia.
She wrapped him in foil and cotton and kept him close to her body to keep him warm. She protected his ears from the loudness of the helicopter.
“Apparently, it all worked,” she said. “I just did what any mother would have done.”
“It really makes you think,” Michael Reilly said. “It makes you think of everything these people did to keep me safe.”
His mother agrees.
“To think that Lt. Nickerson talked about this all of his life,” she said. “It must of meant a lot to him. It sure meant everything to us. Words could never express how we feel.”