This is a story of panic and relief, despair and thanksgiving.
Seconds felt like hours, and every single one counted.
My husband has a wonderful, exuberant cousin who grew up down the street from him. As children they ran around like brothers, climbing, jumping, daring…. They were inseparable, until each evening when Eric returned home and my husband and his siblings were quick to blame their cousin for the day’s mischief. “Eric did it.” This young boy grew into an adventurous adult and his search of fun makes him the Pied Piper of children.
My children adore his entire family. Their three fit right into the spaces between my four. Time together means bare feet, freeze tag, elaborate forts, and sleepovers. They are commonly referred to as the fun cousins.
I have a special kinship with his dear wife. Not only is she my cousin-in-law, but we can bond in the fact that we act as the protective adults when we are all together. Seven regular kids, two really big ones and then there’s us. The ones who remind to wash hands, wear helmets and not climb too high.
This past week they were visiting us in Puerto Rico and we ventured to the north-west portion of the island. While in Aguadilla and Isabella we had grand plans for beach days and surfing lessons. Mother nature had other ideas. As we made the early morning trek to Jobo’s Beach, the first glimpse of the waves told me we wouldn’t be taking the kids out into the surf. Our last few trips looked something like this:
On this day the ocean was angrier.
Dear reader – you are about to experience foreshadowing. The kind of moments when you are watching a horror movie and you want to scream at the idiot who’s going down into the basement…. in this story we were the idiots and as we look back at the day, caution was warned over, and over, and over.
Uncle Eric lead the way on an exploration hike. Right here I heard something like… “there’s no way a wave will come up over this rock.”
And then everyone got wet.
Even though the water looked rough, we weren’t about to ruin this beach weekend. The boys decided to check out the water and set some parameters as far as the kids’ safe play area.
They swam around and felt the pulls of the tide. While my husband was just about here (see arrow), a local warned “Do you see where that man is – he is going to be pulled out beyond the rocks and you will never see him again.”
In the end the children stayed right near the shore – building, and splashing and working up an appetite.
After lunch we decided to try out a different beach. Just below the cliffs of our rental house is another strip of sand known as Survival Beach.
Just before I started to hike the steep trail, a local mom jogged over and warned me: “Don’t let the children boogie board down there, it’s too rough.”
We heeded her advice. No boogie boarding. No swimming. Just playing at the water’s edge.
I show you – the kids were playing knee-deep.
Our resident lifeguard motioned that they stay close.
We were careful. We were watching. We were idiots.
In the blink of an eye, a wave knocked one of the little brown headed children off his feet and pulled him out of his control.
A blonde sister went after her brother only to find herself under the power of the waves.
Eric went in after them.
My husband followed Eric.
In the mere seconds of screaming and getting the rest of the kids onto the beach three heads were swept out to sea. My husband couldn’t reach them. We needed help.
Only when we looked over the faces on shore did we realize who was out in the ocean. Aaron, Leah and their dad, Eric.
My cell phone wouldn’t get a signal.
My husband took off, climbing up the cliff to enlist the help of the Coast Guard.
Sue and I ran along the shore, following their path. The image of three heads getting so small, so fast will forever haunt my nightmares.
All that we could see were glimpses of their heads being overtaken by wave, after wave, after wave.
What we didn’t know was that Eric had caught hold of Aaron. Leah was in earshot. When we saw their heads covered by a wave, they were actually swimming through it – out to the ocean. He kept them calm. He kept them alive.
Sue and I climbed a large rock so that we could spot them. I knew that he had gotten them to safety, hundreds of yards out to sea. If they could just keep treading through the 20 to 30 foot swells until help arrived.
Way above our heads the Coast Guard was in full force. My husband flagged down the first car he saw. The man driving was a rescue helicopter pilot. He immediately alerted the Air Station.
Not knowing what the plan of action was, I felt I needed to get a message to those above. I wanted them to know how far West the swimmers had drifted, and I wanted to get the remaining children off the beach. They were already traumatized and I didn’t want them to watch anything else. But, I didn’t want to leave Sue.
I turned to Caitlyn: ”You will stay with Sue. You will not panic. Even if you can’t, you will tell her that you can see three heads. You will help her stay calm. Do you understand?”
“Yes mom.” And with that, she took her first run since her knee reconstruction, down the beach to stand on a rock with her Godmother.
As the kids and I climbed we heard the helicopter.
(please note: this photo was taken on a different occasion – I was NOT capturing these horrific events.)
Big, brawny men ran down the cliff as we climbed up. The told us “They’ve been spotted. The helicopter will drop a basket and pull them in.”
In a situation that went completely wrong, everything went right. The right place, the right time, the right people.
Survival Beach has three more survivors thanks to fast thinking, swift actions and well trained rescuers.
When everyone was back on dry land I asked them what they talked about while they were out in the water. “We prayed. And then we talked about how mad Mom was going to be.”
When I saw Eric he asked me if I got some great photos? I wanted to hit him with my camera.
Everyone asked me if I would to write the story? I didn’t know how I could put into words just how awful it was. How scary. And how stupid we were. Eric told me to blame him. So I do.
The fact that we have a happy ending. That his two precious children survived unscathed. It is solely because “Eric did it.”
Eric, and the grace of God.