For the last decade I’ve been the unseen voice starting and ending the days of triathletes, paddlers, and everything in-between. You spend the entire day on edge, because you know you need to be sharp – the next great moment, blink-and-you-missed-it-photo-finish, come-from-behind win, it could happen anytime.
When the day is over, I’m always shattered. A little part of me will have ridden along with the people racing, because I’ve been there and know what it feels like – I give it everything to try and get those feelings across.
At this year’s Independence Dragon Boat Regatta back on June 4th, I knew it was going to be another intense, non-stop day. We’d be racing 88 teams (our largest field in the event’s history), and running a heat every 8 minutes. While The dock staff would be loading 88 people into 4 boats, while at the same time unloading 88 people those same 4. One set would be running a race, while the third “flight” of 4 boats would be staging behind the start line, ready for the next heat. The tireless dock staff would be putting someone in, or taking someone out of a seat every 3 seconds, from 7:30AM until the racing was done around 5:00PM.
My day was spent at the finish line calling the races, calling teams to marshaling, making announcements as needed, reading all the bios I’d written about the competitors, and listening to the entire race staff on radio while everyone did their parts, running the operation like a combination Swiss watch and Japanese passenger train.
It was the culmination of six months of hard work, and the day couldn’t have been going any better.
We ticked through the morning heats, progressing into the Semi-Final round. Somewhere around Race 30 in the 66-race program, Pete McNamara rode his Mountain Bike down to the finish to let me know that all 750 Parking Spaces on Kelly Drive were filled, and that I should announce that to the crowd so that if they had friends or family coming down, they’d need to park up Strawberry Mansion Hill.
We chatted a bit about things we’d seen; we were talking about improvements for 2017, crews that had surprised in the morning heats. We talked like two guys standing outside of their neighborhood Wawa, cups of coffee in hand, sorting out all the problems of the world.
Just behind us and beyond the finish line was a wide open area where people would come down to watch the races end. It was a wide-open, grass plain, sitting atop the 6′ high stone wall that guides the East Bank of the Schuylkill River through its meandering course next to Kelly Drive.
There were about 15-20 folks gathered around, with a small group of kids tossing a Frisbee. I’d been watching them out of the corner of my eye, mainly because I didn’t want a Frisbee to come flying towards the finish line camera (we’d already had one re-race due to a timing crash – I couldn’t imagine relaying we’d lost another race because of an errant Wham-O).
I don’t remember exactly what we were saying (as usual we were talking at the same time), but I know we just sort of trailed off the way you let a kite drop from the sky when the wind fades. We’d both spotted the Frisbee rolling on its edge towards the top of the wall; in hot pursuit was a tall, slim, teenage boy.
I thought, “There’s no way he’s getting that…”
And then as each step drew him closer to the edge, “When is he going to stop?”
Pete and I watched in complete silence as this boy, with his attention focused 100% on the Frisbee and only the Frisbee, ran full-speed off the top of the wall like Wile E. Coyote. His head was tucked down, his legs bounding in rapid strides that Usain Bolt would have been proud of, and now he was in mid-air, arms suddenly reaching out for a hold that didn’t exist.
We’ve all gone up a staircase in the dark, and taken one too many steps at the top. When your foot steps into nothing but air, the panic that comes from wondering where the floor has gone is absolutely pure, white, blinding fear; it only lasts a second. A stumble, an exhalation, a swear.
The worst part had to be the time to think, to feel, to see, to know he was in real trouble. The water was six feet below, and his speed carried him 15′ out into space, easily.
However, unlike Wile E. Coyote, there was no hover in mid-air to assess the situation. Sir Isaac Newton took over, and gaining speed the entire way, he plunged out of sight with a huge splash.
Pete and I didn’t say a word. Neither of us could believe what we’d just seen.
At first we were worried about how shallow the water was that close to the wall – we stepped to the edge to check on him.
That’s when things immediately took a turn for the worse.
Instead of surfacing, the only thing to appear were two hands thrashing wildly back and forth. His face popped up between those hands for just a second, but then it disappeared. The hands started waving even more, and then THEY disappeared.
He couldn’t swim.
The water stopped moving, and the rings marking where his hands had last seen the sunshine started to spread out towards the middle of the river.
It had only been 10 seconds since that Frisbee rolled down the field, but that didn’t matter. Pete and I could only think of one thing now, “This is how someone drowns.”
I turned off my microphone.
We all started yelling for the Police Marine Unit, which happened to be against the wall, just downstream. As part of putting on the regatta we have to have Police on the water all event long. They pretty much drive around following races, picking up dropped paddles, the occasionally dropped drummer, and mostly trying not to die of boredom.
By sheer luck, they were less than 50 feet away when we needed them more than ever.
A team that had just finished their heat and had turned around beyond the finish line were closest to the scene. They started screaming at the Police Marine Unit, “GET THE KID! GET THE KID!” It had happened so fast, the Police Marine Unit hadn’t seen the kid or his splashdown. Officers Grave and Costello were sitting by the wall; Officer Graves had his back to us.
As Susan Lemonick sat in stroke seat for her Motley Krewe team, the last thing she thought she’d have to do was be a part of what was happening faster than we could believe; she started drawing her boat over, the Marine Unit pulled right up to the fading bubbles that marked the spot. Officer Graves calmly stood up, turned around, sighted the turbulent water, took his gun off, and then jumped right in.
He went under, and we waited. And waited.
Perhaps only for two or three seconds, but time wasn’t really moving for us. The waves from Officer Graves’ leap into the water spread out in silence.
And then we saw the hands, the face, and a gasping mouth. Office Graves had the kid in a bear hug, and had brought him back to the surface as easy as you please. As soon as they both felt the sunshine on their faces again, I could hear him say to the boy, “I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” The young man’s face was ashen, and his eyes were as wide as two dinner plates. His arms were stretched out his sides as Officer Costello helped get him into the boat, and to safety.
The entire event took perhaps 15 seconds from launch, to splashdown, to disappearance, to salvation.
By now I could see that people along the 500 Meter Race Course were standing up and looking towards the finish, aware that something was happening. I took a deep breath, turned the mic back on, exhaled, and said, “If you were wondering what all the excitement was down here a minute ago, we just had the Police Marine Unit rescue a young man who fell off the wall and into the water. He’s A-OK and on the rescue boat…”
Pete and I just looked at each other and shook our heads. I’m pretty sure one of us (probably both), uttered the only thing guys will say after a close call, “Holy sh*t.”
In the words of Baz Lurhmann, the real things that will happen in this life aren’t the things you worry about; they’re the things that blindside you at 4:00PM on some idle Tuesday. Drowning doesn’t happen with all the drama and fanfare you see in the movies. It’s quick. It’s ruthless. It’s instantaneous. One breath – just one panicked breath while underwater – his lungs would have filled, and that would have been that.
Thanks to the Police Marine Unit, Officers Grave and Costello, the guiding hand of whatever God you believe in, luck, fate, and anything else that happened to align, what was nearly the loss of a young life is now just an adventurous tale. A parable to stay aware of your surroundings. A reminder that gravity isn’t just a suggestion – it’s the law.
I don’t know where his parents were; I never asked. Hopefully they only heard about this later on; the sort of tale that has people asking, “You did WHAT?” as their boy talked about the time he nonchalantly flew off of a wall into the depths of the Schuylkill River.
I do hope they get him some swimming lessons, though.
Not surprisingly, the show went on without even a hiccup. We had about 7 minutes to the next heat, and I resumed previewing the teams in the upcoming race, my voice as sure as it had been before I’d watched this kid find himself looking right at the Grim Reaper, only to get away with it.
As the Police Boat came by our position I had to ask the most important, pressing question: “So, did you get the Frisbee?”
He looked at me, then held it up over his head.
All’s Well That Ends Well.