Wearing only a T-shirt and pants, Curry County Sheriff Deputy Terry Brown clutched the teenage boy in his arms, struggling to keep both their heads above the surface of the frigid Pacific Ocean.
“We’re going to make it. We’re going to make it,” Brown kept telling 14-year-old Joshua Peterson. Meanwhile, hypothermia was creeping in and Brown’s strength was failing.
The boy and his rescuer were caught in swirling currents 150 feet offshore at Brookings’ Harris Beach Monday evening. They struggled to stay afloat in the 52-degree water as people stood helpless on the shore, waiting for more help to arrive. The pair would spend nearly an hour in the water before they were finally rescued.
What started out as a fun, sunny afternoon at the beach for the Brookings’ teen turned into near-tragedy once he stepped into the ocean.
Peterson, visiting the beach with a friend and his friend’s family, was playing in the relatively calm surf when a wave knocked him off his feet. A second wave prevented him from standing, and the undertow swiftly sucked him away from shore.
“I couldn’t put my feet on the ground and the waves kept pulling me out. I started yelling for help,” Peterson said from his Brookings home Tuesday afternoon.
“I was really scared at first. I was out there for about 20 minutes until Terry showed up,” he said. “If he hadn’t come out, I would have been a goner.”
The teen’s mother, Jill Peterson, was at work Monday when she received a call that her son had been taken to the hospital.
“I am so thankful that Terry and everyone else was there. I could have lost him,” she said.
Brown, responding to a 911 call of a boy in the surf at 5:38 p.m, was one of the first deputies to arrive at Harris Beach parking lot. He sprinted across the beach and, seeing the boy was struggling to stay afloat, stripped down to his T-shirt and pants, donned a lifejacket and grabbed a lifeline so others could pull he and the boy to shore.
Brown struggled through the criss-crossing shorebreak and the riptide to reach Peterson, but he had to ditch the rope in order to hold onto the boy and keep him afloat.
Other authorities arrived on scene and the U.S. Coast Guard launched a lifeboat from the Chetco River Station. Cal Ore Life Flight ambulances staged at both Harris Beach and the Coast Guard station, not knowing where Brown and Peterson would be taken.
A flurry of radio communications occurred as Brookings Police dispatch, officers and other agencies coordinated their efforts.
The riptide pulled Brown and the boy north and south along the beach, hampering rescue efforts. At one point, several Brookings police officers, including Officer Kyle Kennedy, waded out through crashing waves between the rocks to toss a lifeline to the pair, but without success.
Frustration grew among a crowd of 30 people on the beach as efforts to reach the pair failed and the Coast Guard boat had yet to arrive.
Curry County Search and Rescue swimmer Logan Couch, who lives in Brookings, arrived and donned a wet suit and swimming gear. He climbed into a borrowed kayak and launched it into the waves, only to have it capsize. He continued to swim out to Brown and the teen. However, the three — the teen, Brown and Couch — were swept farther away from shore.
The U.S. Coast Guard boat arrived, but it could not get close enough to reach the three. A Coast Guardsman tossed a lifeline to the trio, but it didn’t reach them.
“I started to get scared again when the Coast Guard couldn’t reach us,” Peterson said. “And then Terry started throwing up.”
Meanwhile, Sheriff Lt. John Ward, dressed in swim gear and carrying a lifeline, waded through the surf, climbed onto a rock, jumped into the water and swam about 60 feet to Brown, Couch and the boy.
“When I got to them, Terry was done. He absolutely risked his life and saved that boy’s life,” Ward said.
The three men and the teen held onto one another as SAR members and police officers on the beach slowly reeled in the rope, bringing all four people through the surf and safely to shore.
Peterson, with help from others, stumbled to the beach. He was suffering from hypothermia but was in better shape than Brown, who had slipped into unconsciousness. Authorities later reported that Brown’s core body temperature had dropped to 93 degrees.
Harris Beach park rangers brought an all-terrain vehicle down to the beach to carry Brown and Peterson to waiting ambulances, which transported them to Sutter Coast Hospital.
Sheriff Bishop said the Cal-Ore Life Flight paramedics and Sutter Coast Hospital did an excellent job of bringing the body temperatures of Brown and Peterson back up quickly.
Brown arrived at the hospital in critical condition and Peterson in stable condition. The two stayed in the hospital overnight. Peterson said the first thing he did upon waking Tuesday morning was find Brown and personally thank him.
Both were released Tuesday afternoon. Brown was at home Tuesday but still exhausted, Bishop said.
“He basically saved that boy’s life,” Bishop said about Brown. “Then the rest of the team saved both their lives. The teamwork was outstanding.”
Peterson was back home with his family Tuesday and contemplating the ordeal.
“I want to thank everybody, especially Terry, for saving my life,” he said.