For NC Water Rescuers, Best Feeling Comes after 'Saves'

Aug. 26, 2019
More than 20 years ago, a group of firefighters saw a need and formed Oak Island Water Rescue. This past summer, the volunteers have saved five lives.

BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NCThe members of Oak Island Water Rescue say the best feeling in the world is just after a save.

The past few years, they have experienced that feeling several times. Earlier this summer, the team got to experience one of those highs after responding to a call about a giant unicorn raft that was blown from the shore into deeper water.

Chief Tony Young said the team often gets calls about rafts blown out to sea. But this time the raft had a child on it. Rescue team capt. Steve Wilson and his wife Melissa -- also a member of the rescue team -- retrieved the boy. Wilson recalled that when they arrived at the scene, the raft was about a half-mile from shore.

"You couldn't tell that it was a unicorn," he said. "It just looked like a dot on the horizon."

The team rushed into action, launched an inflatable rescue boat from the beach and pulled up next to the boy.

"When we got out there, he kinda had a death grip on the neck of that unicorn," Wilson recalled. "One of the things we try to do is keep the people calm. So, we pulled up about 10 feet away, and I said, 'Hey, we're going back to the beach. Would you like a ride?'"

The boy's answer was an emphatic yes, and minutes later, Wilson reunited him with his mother.

Making an impact

Young said after a save -- especially one like that -- the team is pumped up. This year, Oak Island Water Rescue has been dispatched only about 30 times. Young believes the excessive heat this summer has kept some people off the beach and out of the water. But though they've been on about half the usual number of calls, the team is still making a big impact on beach safety.

"The interesting thing is that we've already had as many saves as we had last year," Young said.

He explained that to them a save is someone who might not live if they don't intervene.

"It's those calls where we have to do everything right to make sure the person doesn't pass away," Young said.

This summer the team has saved five lives, including two people who suffered cardiac arrests on the beach. The majority of the calls they receive aren't that dire. Young said they are usually for paddleboarders who have ventured too far from shore or for reports of objects floating in the water. But each instance has to be taken seriously.

Filling a need

Oak Island, like all of Brunswick County's other beach towns, does not have lifeguards. About 21 years ago, a group of firefighters saw a need and formed Oak Island Water Rescue.

"They realized they had a shortcoming being able to get onto the beach and get people out of the water," Young said.

Though it started small, the all-volunteer organization now has 20 members -- the maximum number allowed by its charter. Young said the organization has been at capacity for the past several years, with others in line waiting to join.

"We've got EMTs, school teachers, computer guys, and I was in the Air Force for 25 years," Young said. "It's just a wide variety of people. The thing is, they show up."

The members all carry pagers, and when the call comes in, they answer. Young said it's not unusual to have a dozen or more people on a midnight call.

"We're not on duty at certain times," he said. "We don't wait at the station. We're at home or at work or wherever we happen to be buying groceries."

Like any emergency response agency, the members train year-round. In the fall and winter, they work on their emergency response driving skills, training with members of law enforcement. Throughout the summer, they practice launching the inflatable boats from the beach, which is no easy feat.

"That's by far the most dangerous thing we do," Young said.

'A very sobering lesson'

When they're not saving lives or training, these volunteers are busy fundraising to replace the organization's outdated equipment. The two inflatable boats used in most rescues were donated by the Coast Guard Station on Oak Island about 20 years ago and have been patched multiple times. The other main boat was one that the team recovered and fixed up for their use. Young said they have some fundraisers in the works and plan to apply for some grants to help raise money for much-needed new equipment.

Despite all the work and time that these volunteers put forth, they say helping others makes it all worth it. After the incident with the unicorn raft this summer, Young obtained a copy of the 9-1-1 call and played it for the team. On it, they heard a frantic mother's desperate pleas for help.

"She was in hysterics -- rightly so -- as she watched her son disappear across the ocean," Young said. "At one point she thought the raft was deflating, and there were no boats on the horizon that day until we got there. He was all by himself out there."

Young believes listening to that tape was a good reminder for all of them.

"To us, it may be routine," he said. "But we always have to be mindful that to the people who call 9-1-1, it's the worst day of their life. It's a very sobering lesson."


©2019 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

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