California Inmate Firefighters Discuss Their Daring Rescue

Several San Quentin inmates risked their lives during a daring rescue of two boaters whose vessel had sunk into the San Francisco Bay's frigid water.


SAN QUENTIN, Calif. --

They're usually behind bars at one of the country's most notorious prisons, but on Wednesday morning several San Quentin inmates risked their lives during a daring rescue of two boaters whose vessel had sunk into the San Francisco Bay's frigid water.

The risk meant nothing for a group of firefighters who didn’t hesitate to jump into the 52-degree water off the eastern shore of Marin County and save a life.

The call came just after 1 a.m. when a 14-foot motorboat capsized and sank in the water near San Quentin. A guard in Tower Three heard a scream for help from the two people left floating.

The first firefighters on scene were ten inmates from San Quentin who all reside in a firehouse on the prison grounds. Engine 23 got the call.

"We found two people in the water; one conscious, and one unconscious," said inmate firefighter Sean Tiger.

It was Tiger’s fellow firefighter Derrick Edgerly who went into the water for the rescue.

"I took my turnouts off went over the wall and went into the Bay," said Edgerly. "There was no fear or hesitation. The guy needed help."

Edgerly said he helped wrap a fire hose around the boaters. His fellow inmates then pulled the two people up 15-feet out of the water. The unconscious male boater came out first

"Once the guy came over, [they] started CPR on him immediately," said inmate Robert Henderson.

The man and the woman, who was wearing a life vest, were in the water for an unknown amount of time before they made it to the shore. . Marin County sheriff's Lt. Barry Heying said the man and the woman were initially conscious but the man collapsed and never regained consciousness.

The U.S. Coast Guard is searching for the capsized boat, Heying said.

The sheriff’s office said the two victims were in their forties. Both were taken to Marin General Hospital where the man was pronounced dead. The woman, also a Larkspur resident, was treated and released.

The male boater was later identified by the Marin County coroner's office as 44-year-old James Laurel of Larkspur.

San Quentin officials said the firefighters are non-violent offenders who live on prison grounds, but just outside the walls in an old firehouse.They respond to calls on the yard, in the cells and in the Bay.

"You get a lot of good training. [It’s a] great group of guys," said Henderson. "And you learn things you can take to the street with you."

Though they have been trained for just such emergencies, Wednesday’s rescue stood out as an unusual incident for the inmate firefighters.

"It’s like a surreal experience," said Tiger. "Something that many people wont go through in their life."

Edgerly was happy that -- in addition to saving a life -- Wednesday’s rescue might change people’s perception of inmates at San Quentin.

"It's an opportunity out here to show people that even though we made a mistake and we have some debt to society we still human beings and we care for people and want to help people," explained Edgerly.

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