Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Thanksgiving I'll Never Forget

One of the many benefits of living in Florida is of course the weather.  A couple of years ago during Thanksgiving week, we saw very warm weather in our area.  In fact, it was so warm that the day before Thanksgiving Derek (my son) and I decided on a whim to break out the jet skis one last time before winter so we loaded up and headed to St. Augustine to play in the ocean.

We stopped at Subway along the way and got a couple of sub sandwiches.  We then stopped at a gas station, gassed up the jet skis and filled the onboard cooler with drinks and some ice.   There is a small island we would stop at to have our lunch, catch up and then head out again on the water.

We got a late start that day.  On the way out we debated about putting the ski's in 20 miles north of St. Augustine.  The ice was we would skip the ocean and just playing in the intracoastal.  After a few minutes we decided to drive the extra 20 miles and go to the ocean - that decision would change our lives forever.

We jetted around the fort (Castillo de San Marco) and then headed out to jump the waves off shore.  The tide was going out so the current leaving the channel was intense.  The channel markers were actually leaning over - we sat on the jet skis and were laughing at how fast the current was taking us out to sea.  We also commented how cold the water was getting - neither of us wanted to get totally soaked today!

After about 20 minutes of jumping waves and splashing each other I was exhausted and decided to head back.  I wanted to rest up so I was going to ride along the fort again and wave to tourists :)  Derek continued jumping while I headed back.  As I was entering the channel I stood up on the ski to stretch my legs (we had sit down type jet skis).   I am about 100 yards from shore when I notice a small group of people are crowded together on the beach.  There are a few that seem about waist high in the water.  As I get closer they seem to be waving to me so I turn the ski towards them.  When I'm about 40 yards away I notice they aren't waving - they are pointing - and they are shouting.

I turn off the jet ski so I can hear them over the noise of the engine.  That's when I hear the first cry of  "please save my babies!"  I turn around and see a young girl 7-8 years old being swept out to sea by the strong current in the channel.  She is directly in the path of parasail boats, charter fishing boats.  I turn on the ski and race towards her, I'm there in seconds.  She is so tiny that I'm able to easily pull her on to the 3 person jet ski with one hand.  She's trembling from being in the water (for 10 minutes I later learn).  She's crying and is clinging to me for dear life.  With quivering lips she says "do see my sister?"

My heart drops at the idea that another child is in this water.  I stand up on my ski and scan the horizon - a good 50 yards away I see the girl.  I tell the little one to hang on as I gun the jet ski and head to get the other girl.  This girl is older, maybe 12-13.  At first she refuses my help and I can't understand why or what she's trying to say as the water is lapping around her.  Then I clearly hear her say, "don't worry about me, save my little brother!"

I wonder "can this get any worse?"  I tell her that I'm not going to leave her and I need her help spotting her brother.  I pull her up on the jet ski and we put the smaller safely between us.  The older one is crying as is telling me the story as I scan the horizon for her little brother.  She tells me that they just got to Jacksonville that morning.  They came to visit family and came straight to the beach.  The little brother got taken by the current and she was trying to save him.  The little sister didn't know what was going on so she followed the big sister.  She kept saying "this is all my fault" as she was crying and trembling from the cold.

I decided to just follow the current - a cold, tired, and undoubtedly exhausted little boy should be here in the channel somewhere.  As I look around in the swells I see him.......well I see his hands.  He is bobbing underwater then popping back up.  I tell the older girl to hang on to me and I open the throttle wide and race to where I last saw him in the swells.  As I approach he is underwater with his hands reaching up.  I reach into the water, grab his wrist, and pull his body up on the jet ski.  In this action I actually slam his chest on to the console of the ski.  He is spitting water, coughing, gagging and like music to my ears - he starts to cry.  I turn off the ski and just hug this complete stranger.  For a few seconds the four of us on my ski in a group hug.

It's now time to get these kids back to their parents.  I'm a good 200 yards away from shore at this point.  How the little boy survived out here (I later learned he was in the water for almost 20 minutes) is beyond me.  I put him up front with me - I tell him he can steer the jet ski for me - this calms him and he seems to forget his brush with death.

As I approach the shore I ask the older girl where her mom is - and then I see her.  On the beach I see a woman on her knees.  The woman has her face is in her hands and she's rocking back and forth.  I gun the jet ski and head right towards her.  I gun the jet ski one last time and then kill the engine as I beach the ski.  I'm immediately flocked by family members who pluck the kids from the ski.  They are hugging and crying, some are almost hysterical.  I hear someone on the phone (with the coast guard) saying "cancel the helicopter, he saved them! he saved them!"

I'm crying, they're crying, total strangers are crying - it was surreal.  The mom and dad and 3 kids are all in a circle on the beach in a big embrace - they will not let each other go.

After everyone has taken a deep breath and realized the kids are safe - attention turned towards me.  The father was trying to give me his wallet - literally.  It made me laugh - but I understood what he was trying to say.  He hugged me so hard I almost could breathe.  He thanked me for giving him back his kids.  The "somewhat large crowd" was now very concerned with who I am.  They kept asking for my name, address, where to send money, etc - I graciously declined.  I refused to tell them who I was - I reminded them this wasn't about me.  After a few seconds I said "actually I do need to ask one favor of all of you".  As a group they eagerly accepted my request to do me a favor.  I said "this jet ski weighs 700lbs and I beached it - any chance a few of you can help me get it back in the water?"  I was pushed aside as the mob move as one and got my ski back in the water ready to go.  I jumped on, put the key in, started it up and waved good-bye.

So that's the Thanksgiving I'll never forget - and I'm thankful you took the time to read - feel free to share or follow this blog - more to come!

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