April 17, 1989 12:00 PM

Neither half of the bridal couple had been previously married. Still, when Joe Ross, 29, and Maura Handren, 23, were pronounced man and wife at the Holy Name Church of West Roxbury, Mass., on March 19, it wasn’t the first time they had taken the plunge. Ross, it could be said, first went overboard for Handren when he saved her from drowning in the Charles River 16 years ago.

At the time they were just kids out for a little fishing on a Saturday morning. Ross’s best friend, who lived just 10 houses away in Roslindale, Mass., was Stephen Handren, Maura’s big brother. The two boys, then both 14, and Maura, 7, had made their way to nearby Dedham and were perched on some boulders lining the riverbank. “We gave Maura a rod to hold while we turned around to get bait out of the tackle box,” says Joe. “When we turned around again, she was gone, no screams or anything.” All they saw was a pair of tiny white sandals bobbing in the murky water—and little air bubbles coming to the surface.

Ross dived into the 10-to 20-foot-deep water after Maura but came up empty. He went back under again and found her. “She was doing the dog paddle underwater,” Joe recalls. “Do you believe it?” He hauled Maura back to the rocks; she coughed up water and suffered minor scrapes but was otherwise unharmed. “I was just relieved to get out of the water,” remembers Maura, “but I did realize that Joe had saved my life.” Once they got home, Stephen and Maura sneaked their wet clothes out to dry. If their parents suspected, they didn’t let on.

Over the years the boys remained close, so Maura saw Joe when he visited. “I guess I sort of had a crush,” she admits, “but he was so shy.” Nothing much happened until 1984, when Maura needed a date for her senior prom. With a little coaxing from brother Stephen, she invited Joe, and he accepted.

The two have been inseparable ever since. Maura, one of eight children of a Boston policeman, now works as a cosmetics saleswoman. Joe, the son of a furnace repairman, is a plumber. Throughout their five-year courtship, Joe and Maura say they never once referred to the great rescue. But word leaked out to the Boston media on their wedding day, and the jibes began to fly. “Joey, you had a chance to leave her in the drink, but now it’s too late,” said Stephen, an assistant engineer at the telephone company. Not surprisingly, Joe’s response was drowned out by a chorus of groans.

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