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Quick act saves man

It was 5 p.m., the water was 43 degrees and Matthias Kuntzsch fell in backward.

Before he tripped on a small but well-camouflaged step Tuesday, Kuntzsch and his wife each had a camera and were near the end of Zephyr Cove pier trying to line up photos of the lake.

The 65-year-old from San Rafael, Calif., was in the frigid water about 5 minutes before his rescue. He tried to swim to shore but got too cold and instead held on to a rope alongside the pier until help arrived.



“I was looking for a ladder but you don’t have that here,” he said. “I was trying to swim as far as possible but I was too heavy. I was soaking. I got so cold. My arms had gotten to be so cold. I really wasn’t able to do anything myself.”

Jim Biller, captain of M.S. Dixie II, was first to notice the man missing from the dock.




“There was a guy there and now there’s a hole in the water,” Biller said. “I put a call on the radio. Whenever there’s a problem we just get on the horn.”

Biller said he even had to inform Sylvia Kuntzsch that her husband had fallen off the pier.

A minute later, Hamilton Rodriguez, hotel manager for Zephyr Cover Resort, came running down the pier looking for Kuntzsch. Joe Davis, a senior deck hand for the Dixie, came from the other direction in a skiff. Together they pulled him to safety.

“He was waterlogged,” Davis said. “I saw Hamilton coming from the lodge and he grabbed him by the arm and then I grabbed the back of his pants and got him in.”

On shore, which is a 400-foot swim from where Kuntzsch went in, Davis and Biller wrapped the reluctant swimmer in a blanket.

“I don’t think he understood the enormity of his condition,” Biller said. “He wanted to dive back in to get his glasses.”

Kuntzsch, a longtime music conductor in Germany who today is music director for Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute, lost his glasses, camera and a pocket calendar in the water. All was recovered but the calendar.

The 65-year-old, who owns a time-share with his wife on Upper Kingsbury Grade, said he was slightly embarrassed because of the incident, but at the same time he found fault with the pier.

“It’s such an idiotic step,” he said. “It was so gorgeous out. I didn’t see this one step. This step is questionable. It should have a color or warning strip or something.”

Sylvia, a professor of voice at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, was worried about her husband but not too worried to miss the opportunity to take a snap shot.

“I thought I can’t miss this shot – there wasn’t anything else I could do,” she said. “I just knew when I saw him in there grabbing the side that he was going to be OK.”

But the couple of 34 years did begin to realize how serious it is to fall in Lake Tahoe this time of year after Biller recounted the death of Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Ed Callahan.

Callahan, a 54-year-old retired customs agent and Douglas County Sheriff’s boat patrol deputy, drowned in May 1998 after a dinghy he was in capsized about 50 feet from the Zephyr Cove Pier.

High winds and a strong wave flipped the boat. Callahan and Wes Rice, a reserve deputy sheriff, were not wearing life jackets when they got dumped in the water.

Callahan, however, was wearing a gun and utility belt and sank before he could reach a life preserver thrown his way. Tahoe-Douglas Firefighters pulled his body up 15 minutes later. They could not revive him and he was pronounced dead at Barton Memorial Hospital.

Biller said he and the rest of his crew have been extra careful since Callahan drowned and that may have sharpened the reaction time of their rescue.

“We were a little antsy,” he said. “Anytime we’re in the skiff we get our own vests on. That stands you a better chance.”


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