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Miracle Man: Twists of fate save life of Jacksonville fighter pilot rescuing family pet

Florida Air National Guard Commander revived after nearly 12 minutes lifeless

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jonathan Kassebaum and his family feel like it was God’s grace orchestrating the unique sequence of events that led to his surviving a near-death experience.

"I don't know, God saw fit to keep me around, I guess," he told us.

It was a few short months ago when the church pastor and father of three was shocked and nearly drowned in the family’s backyard pool.

"I don't really remember much of what happened that morning," Jonathan said, knowing it’s something his wife and children will never forget.

Commander Jonathan Kassebaum with his family
Commander Jonathan Kassebaum with his family (Provided to WJXT)

The F-15 pilot with the Florida Air National Guard's 125th Fighter Wing in Jacksonville has risked his life flying jets for the Navy and the Guard, but he admits nothing could have prepared him for this – being brought back to life after being lifeless for nearly 12 minutes.

"I've pretty much done most of the stuff in our house, so moving electrical lines wasn't anything abnormal really," he said.

A simple re-wiring job in their Mandarin backyard didn't present any obvious risks for this handy homeowner.

"What we didn't know, we had a tree over by our pool equipment over there. And before Hurricane Dorian came, we actually had it taken down," Jonathan explained.

He and his wife Melissa think a branch came loose and crashed down, severing a grounding wire for the pool; not a problem, until Jonathan -- not realizing the ground wire was loose -- separated the wires on the normal electrical circuit.

“So, it went in through the pool wires over, It went through GFCI, GFCI didn’t trip, the breaker didn’t trip, and it basically went into the pool,” he said.

And here’s where the family dog comes in -- a frisky, water-loving, young female Australian shepherd named Phoenix.

Phoenix, the Kassebaum family dog
Phoenix, the Kassebaum family dog (WJXT)

Jonathan says Oct. 25, Phoenix had apparently jumped in the pool to play. He's not sure but thinks the dog must have started yipping and making a lot of noise -- apparently getting shocked by the water.

"I went down the stairs right here into the pool and grabbed the dog out," he said.

Jonathan had to step down into the water to grab the dog, and he must have felt the zap of an electrical shock as the pool water was electrified.

When he turned to get out of the water, he says he grabbed the metal handrails.

"I became the ground. At that point basically, from my sternum down, I couldn't move."

Jonathan became emotional as he told News4Jax how his youngest daughter, Juliet, helped save his life.

"This is the only part I do remember. My daughter came out, she came out the door, and I just said, ‘Help me.’ I asked her, I said, ‘I'm stuck.’ I asked her to turn off the breaker,” he said. "I remember trying to yell it, but it came out as a whisper (because) I don't think I could yell. I remember trying to yell knowing that I wasn't."

Juliet, who is 12 years old, will never forget that day with her father.

“I come out that door, the laundry room door, and I see him like stuck and, like, the dog’s running around the pool barking,” she said.

Jonathan and Mary speaking to 12-year-old Juliet
Jonathan and Mary speaking to 12-year-old Juliet (WJXT)

Juliet was able to get a work crew to help her out -- construction workers who just happened to be at the house two hours early to work on an unrelated wall repair.

"Normally a circuit breaker is in a garage, but we don't have a garage. The workers didn't know where to go," Juliet said. "But the workers went straight to the circuit breaker -- which was amazing. They started flipping the switches, but I was going crazy, so I slapped him (a worker). I didn't know what would happen!"

Juliet told us she didn't know what flipping the switches in the breaker box would do to her dad, who was stuck in the backyard pool, clinging to those metal handrails. He eventually slipped underwater.

The crew didn’t know what was happening, but they knew not to jump right in to rescue Jonathan because they got shocked when they touched the water.

Juliet said workers then turned off all the power and jumped in and pulled him to safety, but she didn’t know if her dad would survive.

"Like he was bright purple. I just couldn't see it," she said.

The workers didn’t speak English and they didn’t know CPR, but they tried to resuscitate Jonathan -- and did their best until a police officer made it there.

Jonathan told us the officer did CPR for seven minutes.

“And this whole time, I didn't have a heartbeat, and I wasn't breathing. They said I was in defib which I guess is just sporadic electrical pulses, but nothing that would be providing oxygen to my brain," he said.

During this time, Melissa was leaving the gym with their daughter, Kylie, and some friends. Melissa told us the frantic call she got from Juliet.

"Daddy was in the pool and he got electrocuted,” Melissa recalled. “And she (Juliet) was telling me to stay calm and drive safely, which was like, WHAT?!”

Melissa continued, “The part I remember, was asking, you know, ‘Is your Dad dead or alive?’ and I could not get an answer."

When rescue crews arrived, Jonathan said the second they used the defibrillator on him, his heart "came back,” just that fast – brought back to life after being lifeless for nearly 12 minutes.

Juliet told us what happened when her mom got to the house.

"She got out of the car and she was bawling, and I was bawling, and like I told her not to go over there because I, she loves him a lot, and I uh, I pushed her,” Juliet said to us as tears rolled down her face.

Melissa added, “They’re like, ‘Don’t go up there. You don’t want to go see Daddy.’ I did not listen. I ran, and they were just putting him in the ambulance, and he did not, he just looked, now how I would want to see my strong, healthy husband -- slumped over.”

Kassebaum family talks with Mary Baer near their backyard pool
Kassebaum family talks with Mary Baer near their backyard pool (WJXT)

“I just hear my mom start to scream, from back here, and it was so loud,” their daughter Ava said. “And um that made me really upset, and she just said, ‘No! Oh God, no!”

Their 15-year-old daughter Kylie admitted to us that she somehow stayed calm through the chaos in order to help her mom.

"They were in tears, she was in tears, I was in tears but like I kinda got over it. And I was like the calm one, which I think she needed," said Kylie. “I put it into my head, ya know, that God was in control and he knew there was a plan for this happening and there's a reason."

Jonathan was now breathing on his own but was rushed to the hospital and placed in a medically-induced coma. After two days and countless prayers, he was conscious.

Jonathan Kassebaum in hospital
Jonathan Kassebaum in hospital (Special to WJXT)

“Out of the corner of my eye, I see him wink at Juliet,” said Melissa, describing the moment her husband woke up in the hospital. “I said, ‘Did you wink at Juliet?’ And he barely nods his head. I said, ‘Can you do it again?’ And he winked at her again, so we started bawling.”

Just days after a brush with death that nearly left Melissa without a husband and his daughters without a father, Jonathan was released from the hospital and back at home with his family – finding a message of faith after nearly dying in his own backyard.

“Ya know,” Jonathan said, “God saw fit to use me and our family and our story to, to just say, 'I got this. I'm in charge of all this stuff. I control these things.’ There's no other explanation for it.”

Jonathan is still waiting to find out whether he'll be cleared to fly again with the Florida Air National Guard, but in the meantime, there's plenty of work on the ground that he continues to do.

He has cleared a hurdle at his church, by getting back on stage and preaching – something he said he had been a little worried about it.

Jonathan Kassebaum preaching again at The Crossings
Jonathan Kassebaum preaching again at The Crossings (WJXT)

As for the safety of the Kassebaum’s backyard pool, the family is leery of it, but it’s now safe. The family brought in a crew to make sure the pool is properly grounded, and a friend of theirs is replacing those metal handrails with polymer ones.

The entire family is so grateful for the overwhelming show of support from friends and members of their congregation at The Crossings in Fruit Cove -- even perfect strangers who have heard about his story and reached out. They are all so deeply moved by what they feel is a miracle story of faith and survival.


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