Sunday, June 21, 2009

holding out for a hero...or two


Two men clung to the hull of a capsized boat, struggling in the rough water about 150 yards off Brenton Reef Friday morning.

As the 5-foot waves crashed against the boat and high winds shoved it toward the rocks, one of the men, age 35, took a chance.

He started swimming toward shore in the cold, churning water. His friend, 67, tried to follow.

Neither was wearing a life jacket.

As the younger man reached land, he pointed back to his friend, who was flailing, and screamed at the police officers and firefighters on shore: He needs help!

The rocks kept the Coast Guard boat from getting close enough to save the man. The Newport fire boat, carrying rescuers, was on the other side of the reef. Firefighters on shore were getting into their wetsuits and grabbing their rescue gear.

But the two rookie police officers on shore dropped their belts and their bulletproof vests –– and started swimming.

Those who know Brenton Reef know that it’s treacherous, especially in stormy weather, Newport Fire Capt. James McIntosh said later, and those who aren’t familiar with it can get caught in its rocky passages.

“That area’s pretty dramatic,” he said.

At around 7:30 a.m., when other fishermen were heading out, someone on shore spotted the capsized 20-foot center-console Grady-White and called for help.

The call brought the Coast Guard and firefighters, all with training and equipment for water rescue.

It also brought Officers Scott Moody, 30, and Joseph Lavallee, 26, both natives of Newport, who know the waters around the island. They both joined the Police Department a little over two years ago, but they hadn’t performed a water rescue since their days together in the police academy.

They saw the man go under the waves once. And again. And then he stopped moving.

“It was at the point where he was going to give up,” Moody said.

They walked over the slippery rocks and ventured into the chest- and head-high ocean waters, pushing against the waves and keeping the drowning man in sight.

“It looked like the guy didn’t have much time,” Lavallee said.

The water was about 60 degrees, but the officers said they didn’t notice the cold as they swam.

“It was a nice awakening to the morning,” Moody said.

The man’s head was still above water, but he couldn’t move when they reached him. The officers got on either side of him, hauled under his arms and started bringing him back. They tried to help him walk when they got closer to shore, but he told them he couldn’t stand.

“He’d been treading water for 35, 40 minutes,” Moody said. The officers carried him the rest of the way to the firefighters on the shore.

The man they rescued, 67-year-old William Murdock, of North Charleston, S.C., was treated by the firefighters for hypothermia and admitted to Newport Hospital. His friend, Jason Catlender, 35, of Scituate, Mass., was treated at the emergency room and released.

Murdock’s boat, which had smashed against the rocks all morning, was brought to shore.

The Providence Journal Bob Thayer

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