[By PO3 Joshua L. Canup and PO2 Nate Littlejohn]
On the evening of May 11, five women gathered for a photo on a pier outside a waterfront restaurant in Beaufort, North Carolina. Without warning, the pier collapsed, plunging them all into the water eight feet below. Surrounded by oyster beds and wooden pilings, the women clung to the collapsed structure in water too deep for them to stand.
Among the five senior citizens, Kay Cochron of Albemarle, North Carolina, was the greatest cause for concern. She had suffered heart problems in the past, and the others began to panic as they treaded water and worked together to keep her afloat.
An off-duty coastguardsman, Fireman James D. Sanders, Jr., of Wedowee, Alabama, was eating dinner with his girlfriend at the same restaurant. With just eight months in the U.S. Coast Guard at Station Fort Macon, North Carolina, Sanders reacted to the situation like a seasoned first responder.
“After the pier collapsed, for a moment we all went completely underwater,” said Cochron. “When we came up, a young gentleman climbed over the restaurant’s deck railing and jumped in.”
Amid the horrified onlookers and the dazed group of women in the water, Sanders remained a force of calm. Sanders yelled for onlookers to grab whatever floatation devices they could find and spoke with reassurance to the women.
“He swam to us and started reassuring us immediately that help would come and we would be fine,” said Cochron. “My friends were concerned for me and we were also tangled up in some fishing line.”
“Luckily, the current wasn’t too bad at this particular time so I was able to keep them huddled around the woman with heart issues to keep her warm,” said Sanders.
Sanders’s request for floatation was answered when some pool noodles were located and passed down. Sanders retrieved the floating noodles and slid one under each woman. A good Samaritan arrived with a kayak to help. Sanders organized the transfer of the women, one by one, to safety on a nearby dock.
“He told my friends, ‘I will not leave her, y’all go on, I’ve got her,’” said Cochron. “He said, ‘I’ve got you.’ He kept us from panicking . . . really kept us calm; he and another guy, EMS I believe, got me under the arm and got me to the dock.”
By the time the Beaufort Fire Department arrived on scene, two women had already been escorted out of the water. When Cochron finally made it to the pier, she was too shocked to turn around and thank him. Later on, however, she would voice her gratitude. “He was a blessing to us,” said Cochron.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” said Sanders. “Normally, the current at that location is much stronger. This happened during an ideal tide. Luck was on everyone’s side.”
For the women, it was more than luck and circumstance – Sanders’ swift reaction and clear thinking to a dire situation enabled him to organize the efforts of other good Samaritans that evening.
“I did what any Coast Guardsman would have done,” said Sanders. “Helping people is what we do, on duty or off.”
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.