Life preservers save lives

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Nate Allerheiligen
  • Air Command and Staff College
Back in November 2008, I was enjoying an unseasonably warm day at Heber Springs reservoir with my family and some friends. We started the day with on the pontoon boat, with our friends riding on their jet skis.
After awhile, they invited me to take one for a spin. Not having a lot of experience on small powered watercraft, I took it easy at first, keeping my distance from other boats and remaining vigilant of those around me. Later, I took my younger son on my lap for a spin while my older son, 11 at the time, was riding the other jet ski. He had ridden several times before and was conscientious and careful in how he rode. We were having a nice time and enjoying the day.

At one point, I came up behind my son and was getting too close to him, so I headed off in a wide sweeping left turn to get some distance from him while he headed off to the right. My young son was "helping" me steer and run the throttle. As I looked over my shoulder for the other rider, I couldn't see him, so I thought we were safe to keep turning. Spray got in my eyes for a moment as we rolled out of the turn, and then I saw him.

Directly ahead of me in my path was my son on a collision course. We were maybe 50 yards apart and each doing 20 knots or more at each other. I barely had time to react, so I did my best to steer away without capsizing or stopping directly in his path. Unfortunately, he kept turning slightly left into my path and we collided. My boat went up and over the left front of his, flew 2 to 3 feet above the water and stopped about 50 to 60 yards away. I immediately turned around and thought for a moment that he was OK. He was sitting erect on his craft with his hands by his side. Then it happened. He turned to the right, almost as if on purpose, and fell into the water face first. That image will haunt me forever.

At that moment, instinct kicked in, and I instantly jumped into the water and began a lifesaver crawl to him. It seemed to take forever to reach him, and the whole time his face was in the water. I instantly noticed the blood in the water as I turned him over. Praise God, he began to breathe and did the "funky chicken" -- a series of spasms common when a person who has blacked out comes back to consciousness. He had a huge wound above his left ear that was bleeding profusely. I didn't have time or opportunity to do any more triage, so I headed back to the boat. No one else was in sight, and we were in the middle of the lake with more than a half-mile swim in any direction to reach shore.

Fortunately, he was wearing a vest-style life preserver and was floating without effort. I grabbed the back of his vest and began pulling him back to my craft where my other son was patiently and quietly waiting. My injured son was responsive to my voice and could move his arms -- he even tried to help swim. With his help, I was able to get him back onto my craft, get the motor started, and the three of us raced back to shore.

When we reached shore, I helped him into a prone position on the concrete, secured his head and neck while applying direct pressure onto his head wound with my shirt. By then, our friends had called for an ambulance, which arrived quickly and took him to the local hospital less than 10 minutes away.

The doctors at the local hospital evaluated him and found no significant head, neck or back injuries. The cut on his scalp was more than doctors wanted to handle there, and he had lost a lot of blood, so he was med-evac'ed to Arkansas Children's Hospital via helicopter. By the time we drove the 75 minutes to the hospital, he was lucid, responsive and doing well. He received 11 staples to close the head wound and was released that night.

There are several lessons to be learned by this life-changing experience, but the paramount discovery is that life preservers save lives! Without the jacket, he may have very well sunk beyond my reach before I could get to him. There is no way that I could have pulled my son 75 yards through the water and onto that jet ski had he not been wearing a jacket. A big kid for his age, he was 5' 7" and 160 pounds at that time. Likewise, had I not had my jacket on, I likely would have drown from exhaustion trying to bring him back to safety.

I also learned the importance to carefully and conservatively follow all the safety precautions in the owner's manual of the watercraft. As vigilant as I was, the added distraction of having my younger son in my lap made the maneuvers we were doing dangerous and tragic.

Finally, water rescue, first aid and CPR courses are a must! Knowing how to properly save and treat a loved one, or even a stranger, is a critical skill that everyone should learn.