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Electrifying Rescue

On August 21, 2004 we had just put zone 3 on red light which means we have a bad lightning storm approaching and we must clear all bathers from the water and waters edge. After clearing the north side of zone 3 and going to the south side to assist Capt. Manchester with clearing the beach I noticed two catamarans had capsized approx. 200 yards off shore. On this day that was just outside the surf line. As the storm approached very fast I noticed two people attempting to upright one of the boats. At the same time our central dispatch contacted Capt. Gardner about two catamarans in distress. Capt. Manchester was observing the situation from the beach as well as Capt. Gardner. I noticed that the people were having some trouble trying to upright the boats so I headed back to Main St. Station to hook up the Jet Ski. While hooking up the Jet Ski I overheard Capt. Manchester advise they were waving for help. The storm was approaching very fast and the winds started to pick up out of the south very strong, the lightning began to get very close and you could hear the thunder simultaneously with the lightning. Capt. Gardner asked if someone could stand by with the Jet Ski and I advised I was already hooked up and will be standing by. Chris Nowviskie was walking down from the second floor of Main St. Station and asked in an excited (are you crazy) voice "are you going to go?" I responded "yeah" and before I could say anymore Chris was sitting in the back of my truck ready to go with me. We have done some great rescues together but have never been in such an intense lightning storm. We started down the beach and by now the lightning was insane, it was hitting within 100 yards or so, it was so close you could feel it in your skin and just knew that it was just a matter of time.

I advised Capt. Manchester that I was standing by and getting my stuff together. Capt. Manchester advised "It goes against my better judgment to tell you to go out there and don't go if you feel uncomfortable." (which in lifeguard code means "go get those people"). Immediately after that Deputy Chief Wooden advised over the radio "Jecoa, your safety is our main concern and if you don't feel comfortable don't go," which also means the same thing as above. Well by now the rain was hitting the side of the window and the wind was in upwards of 50mph. It was shaking the unit we were in. Now the lightning was one after the other, no breaks, just a constant strike and insane thunder. I turned to Chris and asked him again, "you ready" and he said "whatever you do, I am right behind you", it was a good feeling knowing he had my back, it actually helped me make the decision to go, knowing my partner was ready to go out in this insane storm and risk his life along side of me to help these people was the final break in a decision I was contemplating inside my head since the storm had become so fierce I wasn't sure if it was the right decision. I thought OK this is it, I again said "you ready" Chris responded with a "yeah," but in a way I could hear him saying "don't ask me again, lets go before we change our minds." I opened the door to the unit and got hit smack in the face with 50mph+ winds and rain which felt like needles. Chris started to undo the Jet Ski and I began to put on the life vest, helmet, and gloves. The rain was coming down so hard that the unit and the Jet Ski trailer sank in the sand immediately. We tried to push the Jet Ski out but it was too deep, Capt Gardner pulled up and Chris hooked the Jet Ski to his unit and pulled it out. Before we could get the Jet Ski in the water it sank again, I thought to myself "what are you doing, get this Jet Ski in the water and lets go" in that same thought was "I hope to see my family again." I looked at Chris and in a macho man way said "well Chris, if we die right now it was an honor to work with you."

He laughed and so did I, but inside I was serious. We finally pulled the Jet Ski off the trailer and got it into the water. The lightning was like none I had ever seen before, nor have I ever been outside in a storm like this. The Jet Ski started immediately and Chris jumped in the stokes basket and there was no turning back now, we were in the worst lightning storm I could ever remember and we are on a Jet Ski heading out into the water. The rain was so thick I had to cover my eyes with one hand and peek through my fingers; I could see the lightning flash and would think "did I just get hit, am I still here?" I would turn to check on Chris he had his head down and was just hanging on for dear life. (This was payback for another time when he was driving and I was in the basket, the waves were about 6-8 feet and it was at night, but that is a whole other story in itself). The rain was hitting so hard it felt like needles and made it very hard to see the capsized boat, I spotted the boat and saw a father and his 14 year old son, they looked petrified, I asked "you want to go in?" thinking of course they do why did I even ask that. They yelled back "YES" and I then asked the father who was on the other boat and he advised his daughter was on the other boat alone.

Chris jumped into the water and grabbed the young boy and held on to him, I picked up the father in the basket and circled back around to pick up Chris and the boy, the boy climbed up on the back of the Jet Ski and Chris stayed with the father in the basket, we headed off toward the other boat which was by now because of the rain we couldn't see anymore, I knew it was supposed to be so we started in that direction, the wind chop was 3 feet plus and with three adults and a 14 year old boy, the Jet Ski had its work cut out for itself especially in this type of surf and weather. It ran like a champ. We got hit by one chop that just about washed me off the Jet Ski and I had to make sure we didn't lose any one, if we would have there was no way to see a person in this rain and wind. Everyone was still there and hanging on tight, I told them "put your heads down and pray that we make it of this one" (it's a funny thing when lightning is striking so close, you flinch and duck, but does that really help?) Anyway, I finally spotted the other boat which had drifted approx. 1 mile away from the starting point to all of this, that's how strong the winds were. As I approached I thought that his daughter had either started to swim in or was knocked off by the waves, as we circled around I saw this little 12 year old girl grasping on to the boat for her life. She was trying to call for help on a cell phone she had in the dry box. She looked up and saw us with great big eyes and look of total despair, I told her to climb in and make it quick, she jumped from the boat and Chris grabbed her and pulled her into the basket, now the Jet Ski had three adults and two regular sized kids, and we were heading for shore. The wind was too strong and with the chop still at 3 feet plus, there was no way with all these people on board we could get back to our original starting point which is where all the rescue units were standing by for us, I grabbed my radio and told them "we are coming to the beach at the clock tower, I say again we are coming to the beach at the clock tower with three victims and everyone is ok." We took some good hits from the side chop and almost rolled it once or twice, but we finally were making progress to get back to shore. I thought "OK we have everyone please don't let us get hit now, just a couple more minutes and we will be on shore."

I noticed the blue lights from all the units doming to our location, and once we hit the beach we ran for shelter in the food wagon which was the closest thing we could find. I advised again that everyone was ok and we will be standing by. Capt. Manchester and Capt. Gardner arrived immediately to check on us and make sure everything was ok. The young girl began to cry and the father was just hanging on to his kids with the most intense grasp, his eyes welled up with tears. It was a good moment, we made it, we actually made it. The victims were taken back to Main St. Station and were standing by for the mother and wife to arrive. They were given some lifeguard shirts and a tour of our station. We returned to the station as well and received great thanks and hugs from them all. The mother arrived and it was a very emotional moment and she also began to hug us and thank us repeatedly. It was then that the mother told us when her daughter was on the phone she had called her mom and told her of the situation and said "Mom, we have flipped our boats, I can't see Dad or Justin, I love you Mom." Those words just about made everyone break down. No time for that though, we received another call that there was a possibility that someone else was in trouble and Chris and I said goodbye and headed off to look for this other victim. We launched the Jet Ski and began looking in the area. We noticed a sail boat upright  off shore, we responded to it and upon approaching it we noticed that no one was on it, it was just tacking away at a very good clip. We received confirmation that the other victim had been located and was ok. We got along side of the ghost catamaran and Chris had to jump from the Jet Ski to the boat and grab a line that was dragging, it was very eerie out there, no one around, this boat just sailing away with these high winds. Chris got the rope on the first try and pulled himself up to take control of the boat. We tied off and towed the boat back to shore, secured it, then turned around and went back to retrieve the other boat which was still capsized and damaged pretty bad. We tied off and towed it to shore as well. Finally it was over, we had all the victims and all the catamarans on shore and everyone was ok. The family met us down by the boats and again began to hug us and thank us repeatedly. If you are in this line of work, you know that all the money in the world could not replace the feeling you get when you return a loved one back to another. No matter how dangerous or how simple, I would do this for free. That's the kind of feeling you get from this type of rescue. And for the record, I couldn't have and probably wouldn't have made this rescue without my partner Chris by my side. Special thanks to him and everyone involved. In the grand scheme of things, it was just another day at the beach. Clearly Jecoa Simmons and Chris Nowviskie put their lives on the line during this rescue. For their heroic act, the National Board of Directors of the United States Lifesaving Association awarded Jecoa and Chris the Medal of Valor.

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