ST. AUGUSTINE BEACH, Fla. – First responders from three agencies and an off-duty police officer on vacation took part in a dramatic rescue in St. Johns County, saving a father and son caught in a rip current.
Ethan Martin, 14, and his father, Andrew Martin, were vacationing from Illinois with their family in St. Augustine Beach.
Martin is a corrections officer for an Illinois state prison.
The two said they were body-surfing Tuesday afternoon when they were knocked over by waves and swept out by a rip current. The two can swim but said the conditions were too rough for them to get back to shore.
"I was thinking, 'This is how it ends,'" Ethan said.
"I knew that it was a bad situation. We started calling for help," Martin added.
Several people called 911 for help. In one of the calls, a woman can reports that two people in the water are yelling for help.
911 caller: "There's two people ... I'm at the beach in front of Sea Winds Condominiums and there's someone out drowning. They're screaming for help. We can't get to them."
Fire Rescue: "OK. How far out are they?"
Caller: "They're far. They're out. They're, like, 100 feet out in the water. I mean, they're screaming for help and we can't get to them. Oh, my God."
Fire Rescue: "OK. Listen to me. How many people are there?"
Caller: "There's two people out in the water. One is screaming for help. There's people trying to get to them now, but, I mean, two people on floats trying to get to them. They're about 100 feet out in the water. We're right next to the beach access."
Fire Rescue: "OK. And you said they're 100 feet out?"
Caller: "Yes, yes. They're getting out farther. But they're still above the water."
Fortunately, Joe Allen, a SWAT team officer from Prince William County in northern Virginia, was on the same beach with his wife, who is also an officer.
"I could tell whoever was yelling, they were yelling for help," Allen said.
He grabbed a boogie board from someone and swam to help. When he reached the father and son, he let them hold onto the board and catch their breath as beachgoers called 911.
Help came fast.
A St. Johns County sheriff's deputy, St. Johns County firefighters and two St. Augustine Beach police officers were nearby and sped to the scene. The first responders stripped off their uniforms and jumped in as Allen's wife relayed information to them from the shore.
"It was a little crazy there in the beginning, trying to get a head count and figuring out who is out there and who is not and that kind of stuff," recalled St. Johns County Fire Rescue Lt. Dan Power, a supervisor of the department's marine unit. "But once we start seeing the OK signs coming up, we start realizing that we've got this under control."
"It's part of the job," said Officer David Jensen, with the St. Augustine Beach Police Department. "It's nothing you do for fame or for recognition. It comes with the job."
The first responders agreed the outcome would have been grim had it not been for Allen, the vacationing officer with the boogie board.
"If it wasn't for that officer, this would have been a different story," said St. Johns County sheriff's Deputy Neil Bronner, who was responding to another call nearby at the time.
"(Allen is) the real hero in this thing," said Cmdr. Lee Ashlock, with the St. Augustine Beach Police Department, who was on patrol at the pier when the 911 call came in. "He saved their lives. He provided them a means so we could get to them and help them float a little longer."
First responders brought the father, son and good Samaritan to the shore safely. The trio was shaken up, but OK.
A day later, on Wednesday afternoon, the Martin family met the good Samaritan and first responders.
"They definitely saved our lives," Martin said. "We were about done. I don't think we could've held on for much longer."
"I am very grateful for them," Ethan told News4Jax. "They saved me."
First responders said the good Samaritan made a good choice by grabbing the boogie board. Without it, this could have ended with three people dead.
Firefighters regularly train with police officers and sheriff's deputies for beach emergencies, Power said. He believes the teamwork and prior relationships between agencies played a role in their success.
Ashlock said the conditions remain treacherous and beachgoers should stay out of the water.
Ashlock added that the chief of police in St. Augustine Beach would be sending a letter to Allen's department to recognize him for his heroics.