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Around Del Norte: Local teenager recalls ordeal on the Smith

Eric Vega, 15, left, and his rescuer, Jim Cox.
Eric Vega, 15, left, and his rescuer, Jim Cox.
 Eric Vega figures he was rescued twice after a freak accident nearly took his life in the Smith River. As a result, he’s alive and preparing to start his sophomore year at Del Norte High School in September.

 Eric, 15, of Crescent City, was snorkeling at the Gasquet Forks with a couple of friends and his cousin Chelsea on Sunday, July 7, “a normal day.”

 “I looked down because there was a fish under my feet, and water got in my snorkel,” said Eric.

 He thought he’d blown all the water out, but when he took what he thought would be his next breath, water filled his lungs.

 

 “I sunk down about a foot, swam up, threw up, and yelled ‘Help!’ I put my mouthpiece back on and I remember getting so close to the surface” before he started to sink again.

 “And this is the freakiest part,” Eric said. As he bordered on losing consciousness, “I was talking to Jesus.”

Actually, Jesus was doing all the talking, according to Eric, telling him he was “going back” to eventually raise a family. “I thought I was dreaming, feeling like I could see him, but he was moving. I saw his face, but he would always move, walking in circles, talking.”

 Eric has no idea how he got back to the surface, but the man he considers his second rescuer was springing into action.

Jim Cox, a captain with the Gasquet Volunteer Fire Department, was on the other side of the same swimming hole with his wife Becky when he saw someone “flailing around” before he yelled “Help!” and sank.

 The retired prison correctional counselor dragged Eric to the beach. “He was unconscious and unresponsive and turning blue,” said Jim.

Eric had no pulse, Jim said, as he began chest compressions while someone called 911.

 Meanwhile, Eric’s cousin Chelsea, a visitor from Sacramento, was hysterical. She’d thought he was kidding when he initially called for help and was already feeling guilty about that.

 “When I woke up I could hear, at first, (Jim) telling my cousin Chelsea to calm down, Eric said. “Someone told me I was screaming ‘Jesus,’ but I couldn’t remember that … then I could see. I was dizzy. Everyone was touching me, and I was telling them to stop. Then I threw up a lot.”

In the ambulance on the way to Sutter Coast Hospital, Eric remembers getting “a whole bunch of shots,” and that paramedics were pinching him but he couldn’t feel it.

 During the five hours spent in the Emergency Room, “all my family came,” including a relieved cousin Chelsea – “she’s the one who stayed by me the whole time.”

A week later Eric was visiting Chelsea in Sacramento and was back on the water in a Jet Ski. He also took part in the Gasquet Raft Race, and that was when he went to the fire station and “saw all the people that helped to save me, some I couldn’t remember.”

But he remembered Jim. “No one there knew how to do CPR except him and his wife. If they weren’t there, I probably would have died.”

 Jim, who has been a volunteer firefighter for seven years, said the reunion was emotional. “I was very happy I was able to help him, and that he didn’t have any long-term debilitating results from it.”

As for whom Eric considers his first rescuer, he says he has a new outlook on Jesus. “I actually believe in him now. I actually know he’s real.”

 


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