BY MARCY SHORTUSE – Sometimes, everything in the universe works out just right. Boca Grande firefighters experienced a similar feeling last Thursday, Aug. 20, when they were called out for a water rescue that came together like clockwork … literally just hours after finishing drills for the exact same situation.
Firefighter Jeff Knowles was working at the Boca Grande Fire Department when a call came in at approximately 10 p.m. of a woman who was lost in the water. It was pitch dark with no moon due to storms further south in Lee County when a man, the woman’s boyfriend, called for help, telling emergency personnel he and his girlfriend had jumped in the water between Pine Island and Cayo Costa. They hadn’t realized the current there was so swift, and while he got back to the boat she did not.
“When we got out there it was so dark, all you could see was lightning off on the horizon,” Knowles said. “We weren’t even sure where the caller was with the boat, so we set out a buoy to determine the current’s direction, then we would slowly move 100 yards in one direction, turn off the engine and listen.”
It wasn’t as easy as jumping in the boat and driving full throttle to the caller’s boat, as they were afraid the victim could be anywhere and would be run over.
Pine Island, Cape Coral and Charlotte County marine units also responded to the call. Because they all had participated in a water rescue drill just the day before, Knowles said the search was flawless.
“It couldn’t have gone smoother,” he said. “We were all right in sync with everything we were supposed to do, and I think that’s why we found her so quickly.”
It took them a little over an hour to find her, from the time they got the call, found the woman’s boyfriend in the 36-foot trawler they had gone out on, and then found her.
Firefighter Jason Hutchison first heard the faint scream from the darkness. Knowles said everyone froze and listened, but they still couldn’t see her. They got closer and closer to the origin of the sound.
“We got right up on top of her before we had a visual,” Knowles said. “We found her about a mile away from where she had jumped off the boat. She was definitely getting swept out to sea, and the life jacket she was wearing was very old and was totally waterlogged. She was extremely lucky and basically delirious with happiness that we found her.”
Knowles gave credit to Firefighter Blake Cheske, who is also a fishing captain, because he not only was intimately acquainted with our surrounding waters, he had a good idea of which way the current would take her.
“When we started looking for her we had no GPS location of the boat,” Knowles said. “Apparently they jumped off the boat for a swim at approximately 9:30 p.m., and the current was just ripping through there. The boyfriend realized at some point she couldn’t swim back to the boat because the current was so strong, so he swam back with the intention of getting in the boat and coming back to her. It took him about 25 minutes to swim back, though, and by the time he got to the boat and went back to where he thought she was, she was gone. The current was taking her in the direction of Boca Grande Pass, and eventually she would have ended up in the Gulf.”
Knowles said not only were the life jackets on the boat old and substandard, the boat only had stern lights. One thing that did work to their advantage in finding the boyfriend and boat was the fact he had one flare aboard, which he shot off so the firefighters could find him.
“We started working our way in toward the boat while the other units were coming from different angles,” Knowles said. “We were just trying to narrow the search scope down. Lightning helped us, as it lit things up so we could see for a split second and get a visual of where the markers were and everything. It was a crazy night but it all worked out. Our training paid off astronomically.”
Knowles said if things had worked out just a little differently when it came to the interaction between rescue units, they may have used a different search pattern and never found her. He also said it was very ironic that this is not the first time they have held training exercises that paid off in a real situation just days later.
“Not long ago we did a drowning exercise, then about a week later got turned out for an actual potential drowning,” he said. “I think the next training exercise we do should be about how to win the lottery.”