TROUBLED WATERS - A tragedy and daring ocean rescue, a chilling collision at the lake and a second chance for twins who nearly drowned in a swimming pool

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Whether in a swimming pool, at the lake or frolicking in the ocean, summer is a time to get wet! But while having fun, you should always keep risk management in play -- for yourself and your wingman. Because as the people in the following three stories found out, it might be only a short swim from joy to sorrow.

Horror at Harkers Island -
Dad fights ocean waves to try to save his two children, another boy and a friend; one of them doesn't make it

For months Staff Sgt. Jay Rosen- berry had looked forward to his vacation to Harkers Island in the Outer Banks, the long string of narrow barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina.

He kept busy throughout the year as an F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief with the Air National Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing at Tucson International Airport, Ariz. He loved his job, but it was time to unwind on the beach.

Unfortunately, it didn't turn out to be the stress-free trip he'd planned.

He arrived at Harkers Island, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, July 24, 2006, with his 11-year-old daughter, Josie, and his 9-year-old son, J.J. They were vacationing with Jay's former girlfriend, Kristy Vaughn, and her 10-year-old daughter, Mikayla, and 8-year-old son, Josh. Also accompanying them were Kristy's dad, Johnnie Morris; her stepmother, Betty; and her stepbrother, Mark Emerson, as well as Mark's wife, Angel.

While Jay, Kristy and Betty stayed behind to finish unpacking and to tidy up the quaint cabin they'd rented, the kids, escorted by the other three adults, headed down to the beach.

Less than an hour later, a frantic Mikayla nearly ran into Jay as he stepped out of the cabin on his way to the beach. She'd obviously been running hard and was out of breath.
"The boys are in trouble!" she screamed with a gasp.

Jay's heart sank. It was more than 200 yards to the beach, and he sprinted it as if being chased by a ravenous tiger.

He didn't know it at the time, but J.J., who is autistic, had been pulled in by the riptide. When 33-year-old Mark, who had been playing with the children, started to go to help him, Josh also got pulled in by the rough waters. Since Josh was closer, Mark tried to rescue him. But he too got yanked into the ocean's grasp. With no one close enough to save J.J., Josie, who is fiercely protective of her brother, tried to reach him. Unfortunately, the greedy riptide put her life in danger as well.

Now all four fought for their lives.

Fear mounted as Jay approached the beach and saw four heads bobbing in the water. About 60 yards out, Josie was closest to the shore. J.J. struggled 30 yards beyond her to the right. Mark and Josh were another 60 yards out from J.J. and even farther to the right. Johnnie, who was 60 years old, desperately tried to break through the surf to help but was having little luck.

Who to save first?

Jay didn't break stride as he made his decision. Mark had hold of Josh. So Jay chose to help the closest person first. He dove into the strong waves and "porpoised" through, a trick his dad, who had been an expert surfer, had showed him when he was a boy. It didn't take him long to reach Josie, who despite her own dire straits screamed for her dad to help her younger brother instead.

Terrified at the prospect of losing his children and friends, Jay refused to let panic take hold.

"To panic in a situation like that is a death sentence," the 41-year-old said. "If you panic, you don't think straight and tend to make poor decisions."

He got Josie to the shore, then immediately turned back to rescue J.J. By this time, Kristy also had arrived at the scene. She and her dad tried again and again to run through the raging surf to help Mark and Josh, but their futile attempts continued to be thwarted by strong waves that kept pushing them back. Jay again used his porpoise technique to break through.

To this point, adrenaline had fueled Jay, and his body hadn't yet succumbed to the effects of the massive amount of energy he'd been burning.

"I work out with weights three times a week and am in pretty good shape; but let's face it, if I sprinted 200 yards in a normal situation, I'd be huffing and puffing and out of gas," he said. "But when your kids' lives are on the line, fear can push you past your limits."

Nevertheless, he began feeling tired about three-quarters of the way to J.J.

J.J. didn't know how to swim, but he was doing a pretty good job of dog paddling furiously to keep his head above water. He didn't say anything as his dad approached -- because of his autism, he wasn't very verbal. While Jay saw fear on his son's face, the boy never panicked and was immediately calm when his dad grabbed him.

"I think he just felt safe once I had a hold on him," Jay said.

Getting J.J. back to the shore proved exhausting. Jay's extreme exertion started to catch up with him. With wobbly legs he handed his son to Josie, who was crying, and quickly hugged and kissed them both. When he turned around, he noticed that Mark and Josh had become separated. Josh, who also did not know how to swim, slapped the water frantically in an effort to keep his head above water. Mark seemed to be floating.

"I was scared for Mark," Jay said. "But my instinct was to go after the 8-year-old now that he was alone, because I knew he couldn't swim."

As he stumbled back toward the ocean depths, Jay passed Kristy and Johnnie. The last thing he heard before diving into the waves for a third time was Kristy's shrieking voice pleading, "Please save my boy!"

When Jay made it to Josh, the hysterical child grabbed at him, fought him and tried to climb on him. At first, Jay couldn't reason with him.

"It was a struggle to get him to calm down enough to help him," Jay said. "I was exhausted and swallowed a bunch of salt water. I really didn't know if we'd make it back. I actually felt like I might die out there."

On the verge of collapse, Jay somehow managed to make it back to shore with Josh. Kristy snatched up her son and hugged him tightly. Meanwhile, two other bystanders who had arrived on scene used boogie boards to go help Mark. As they got him close to shore, Jay, Kristy and Johnnie helped pull him in. He was unconscious and Kristy, a nurse, began performing CPR.

Jay slumped and sat down hard.

With his head in his hands, he sobbed uncontrollably.

"I was mentally and physically exhausted and just broke down," he said. "All the fear of coming so close to losing my children just came pouring out.
I don't know what I'd do without them. Plus, I barely made it back with Josh ... and then there was Mark ..."

Despite the efforts of Kristy to revive her stepbrother, he died.

"Mark had been in the Navy and he could swim OK, but I think he just became too fatigued holding and struggling with Josh out there for so long," Jay said. "Plus the sea was pretty rough that day, so I'm sure he swallowed quite a bit of salt water."

Paramedics arrived, and a helicopter flew Mark to Carteret General Hospital. A Coast Guard boat took the kids, Johnnie and Jay to the same hospital, as they had all ingested sea water and were throwing up. Jay stayed the longest to be treated for excessive salt water intake.

On April 11, nearly two years after the bitter-sweet day on Harkers Island, the Coast Guard awarded Jay its Silver Lifesaving Medal for his heroic actions. Officials also posthumously awarded Mark the Gold Lifesaving Medal for sacrificing his life to save another. Mark is buried in Jetersville, Va.

"I just thank God for giving me the strength to do what needed to be done," Jay said. "I can't even imagine what my life would be like without my children." 


Life Lineat Lake Arrowhead - Sergeant rescues unconscious man, boy in boating accident

With his wife, Debra, and 5-year-old daughter, Danielle, manning the boat, Senior Master Sgt. Mike Stephenson-Pino slipped into the water at Lake Arrowhead in Wichita Falls, Texas, to cool off from the hot sun. Shortly after he did so, he witnessed a disaster unfold not 30 feet from his wet haven.

Stephenson-Pino, superintendent of independent duty medical technician technical school in the 383rd Training Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, and his family were at a church outing -- barbecuing, boating and waterskiing -- when the mishap took place July 29, 2007.

Driving the boat, Debra pulled a man and a 10-year-old boy on a long, cigar-shaped tube. As the vessel turned, it created a big wake behind it. The tube hit the wake, and the nose of the tube got buried under the water. The powerful tug of the boat forced the tube to take a nosedive farther into the lake, which in turn caused the tube to buckle in the middle.

Suddenly, the tube turned into a giant slingshot, capable of catapulting human beings.

"The man and boy shot up about 12 feet in the air," Stephenson-Pino said. "If you're driving the boat, you can help prevent this from happening by cutting the gas when you see the tube take a dip."

As the duo launched skyward, the man, who had been on the back of the tube, also was propelled forward directly toward the boy. His head struck the boy on the hip."

They ricocheted off each other and, even with life jackets on, disappeared into the lake 20 feet apart. An instant later both popped out of the water. The boy screamed in panic and agony. Face-down in the water, the man didn't move.

Stephenson-Pino, who in his profession had saved people who had fallen off cliffs, treated battle-wounded Soldiers in Iraq and revived heart attack victims, didn't hesitate in his response.

"In an emergency situation, things kind of slow down for me, and my thinking and situational awareness are sharper -- I guess that's pretty common for folks in my line of work," he said. "I headed straight for the unconscious man. I had to get his face out of the water."

The sergeant quickly swam the 30 feet and carefully turned the victim over onto his back. He then cleared the man's airway. Once he ensured the victim was breathing, he tucked the man's head under his arm. Then, with the injured party in tow, he began to swim another 20 feet toward the frantic boy.

"When I reached the boy, he was thrashing and flailing about because his life jacket was too big and he was about to fall out of it," Stephenson-Pino said. "He was terrified and crying because he wasn't comfortable in the water, he was confused, and he was in pain. He probably thought he was going to drown."

The Airman had to grab the youngster rather forcefully to get him to calm down and stop fighting.

"Once I had him secured, I had to keep swimming with both of them to keep their heads from bobbing in and out of the water," he said.

Meanwhile, Debra pulled their boat next to the trio, and her husband lifted the boy to the ladder. Relieved, the youngster quickly climbed into the boat.

Then things got tougher.

"It's difficult to lift a full-grown unconscious man out of the water when you have no footing," Stephenson-Pino said.

He decided to put one foot on the first rung of the ladder to help gain leverage to pull the victim up across his knee. Then, slowly moving rung by rung, he inched him out of the water until he could finally roll him onto the deck of the boat.

"By the time we got him laid out on the bench seat of our boat, I was totally exhausted," the sergeant said.

Shortly after getting in the boat, the adult victim regained consciousness.

After reaching shore, the man's wife rushed him to the hospital. Doctors said the knockout blow had given the man a concussion and caused mild bleeding on his brain. The boy suffered only minor bruising to his hip.

Stephenson-Pino said he and his wife kept their cool through the whole ordeal.

"Debra is a physician assistant, and with my background and all my Air Force Training, we're no strangers to emergency situations with peoples' lives on the line," he said. "It's what we were trained to do."

So while some might consider them heroes, for the Stephenson-Pinos, it was just another day at the office.


Close Call at Kitty Hawk Pool - Lieutenant revives twin 6-year-old boys who nearly drown

When 2nd Lt. Mike Schroeder went to his apartment complex swimming pool March 29 to study for an upcoming advanced navigator test, the usual calming effect provided by a backdrop of palm trees, a pristine rock waterfall and crystal-clear blue water didn't last long on this sunny San Antonio afternoon.

As he pulled up a lawn chair at the Villages at Kitty Hawk pool, something caught his eye. Two young boys lay face-down in the bottom of the pool, five feet below the surface.

They weren't moving.

"At first, I thought they might be playing -- having a breath-holding contest and then popping out of the water -- especially since there were two of them," said Schroeder, who graduated from combat systems officer training Aug. 1 at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. "But they were very still, and I didn't see any air bubbles."

Uneasy, Schroeder walked toward the boys and saw a man standing near the edge of the pool looking around.

"Are those kids OK?" the 23-year-old lieutenant asked, while pointing at the children.

The man's eyes widened with fear, and he jumped into the pool. The man, who turned out to be the father of the 6-year-old twin boys, grabbed one of them and immediately set him on the edge of the pool while he went to rescue the other brother. Without hesitation, Schroeder, who learned CPR while going through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program (Detachment 695) at the University of Portland in Oregon, began doing chest compressions on the unresponsive youngster.

"It was eerie because his eyes were wide open, his mouth was filled to the brim with water, and he wasn't breathing. He looked dead," said Schroeder, who flew in T-43s and T-1s at Randolph. "And I had never performed CPR on anyone in an emergency situation before, so I was nervous."

While someone called 911, Schroeder gave the boy four chest compressions. To the lieutenant's relief, the youngster started spitting up water, coughing ... and breathing!

"I turned him on his side to help the water run out of his mouth, and as soon as he caught his breath, he started to cry," Schroeder said. "Then I asked another bystander to watch over him and ran to his brother."

The second twin's eyes were closed, and he also had a mouth full of water. After five chest compressions, he too began coughing and spitting up water.

"After my success with the first boy, I felt much more confident with the second," Schroeder said. "Once he was breathing, I just tried to think about what else needed to be done."

As he placed towels over the boys to help prevent shock, paramedics arrived and took over. They put the twins on oxygen and a pulse monitor. When they were sure both were stabilized, they transported them via ambulance to the hospital. The twin brothers made a complete recovery.

"This incident just goes to show that you can never lose track of your children near water," said the lieutenant, who grew up around lakes and rivers. "Their father got momentarily distracted, and they ended up at the bottom of the pool."

Knowing life-saving CPR and first-aid buddy care also doesn't hurt.

"I never thought I'd actually have to use it, but I'm glad I took CPR," said Schroeder, who was assigned to Alpha Flight in the 562nd Flying Training Squadron. "It's kind of ironic, because a week before this incident we had a safety briefing in the squadron where they stressed being a good wingman."

Fortunately for the twins, their wingman was ready.