ST. PETERSBURG — The mother was pacing back and forth above the storm drain, calling for help.
Her babies were stuck below.
People passed without a second glance. But Mitchel McNeally couldn't ignore the mother's cries. He stopped, edged closer and peered past the metal grate.
There they were, piled atop one another in a storm drain behind the Old Navy at Tyrone Square Mall: nine brown ducklings, calling to their mother.
"She seemed so frustrated," said McNeally, a 52-year-old janitor from St. Petersburg. "She wouldn't leave the spot for anything, even as I got close to it. I knew something was wrong."
First he called the city. No luck. Then he tried a local TV station. Strike two.
Firefighters got the call about 9:52 a.m. They arrived four minutes later to find the mother duck perched above the drain and McNeally guarding the spot from about 15 feet away.
"She was obviously distraught," Lt. Tom Kras said. "She was definitely standing on the grate protecting them."
The firefighters suited up in partial bunker gear — boots, pants and gloves. Guarded at first, the mother eventually let them approach.
The mother duck stood nearby, quacking constantly as the firefighters worked.
It took three men to lift up the grates that held the ducklings in.
Once the grates were off, firefighter Ted Johnson jumped down into the drain. The ducklings scattered.
Corralling them with his legs, he scooped them out, one by one.
Handling ducklings is harder than it looks, the firefighters said. The key is to hang on to them without squashing them.
"They're very vigorous," Kras said. "They were fast."
Once set down, the ducklings ran to their mother. Except one.
"He got out of my hands so fast," Kras said. "He didn't know where to go. He was scared."
The little duck jumped out of the firefighter's hands and sprang through the parking lot. Kras had to chase it under three or four cars before catching it.
"It was really funny," McNeally said. "Big ol' firefighter chasing around this little thing."
Kras, a 13-year veteran, said this is the first duckling rescue he has ever been on.
McNeally stuck around until the mother had all her ducks in a row. He watched as they filed over a median and into some Hawthorne bushes.
"When somebody needs help, you got to try to help them as best you can," McNeally said. "Even if that somebody is a duck."
Marissa Lang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.