From Doom to Devotion: La Jollans forge unlikely friendship from rip rescue

Patrick Fitzpatrick (right) and his rescuer, Dustin Castillo

In nearly losing his life, Patrick Fitzpatrick gained a friend.

The La Jolla resident went for an ocean swim several months ago and ended up in serious trouble. A Good Samaritan rescued him, but it took the power of social media for Fitzpatrick to track down his savior to properly thank him.

“It changed my life for the better,” Fitzpatrick told La Jolla Light of the accident that led to his rescue and search for his rescuer.

He explained that in September 2019, he went swimming at Windansea, where he’d been many times. An experienced ocean-lover who completed the La Jolla Rough Water annual one-mile swim, Fitzpatrick said he was no stranger to the water, but the rip current that day “snatched control away from me in an instant. After fighting to no avail, I ultimately became frozen and panicked. I began taking on water and felt I would drown.”

But as fate would have it, that day Bird Rock resident and avid surfer Dustin Castillo, went to Windansea with his roommate Jeff Schroeder to check the waves. While walking on the beach, Castillo told the Light, he noticed a figure in the water “was someone definitely in distress.” With no one else around, he decided to jump in wearing his street clothes, and he swam past the break to reach Fitzpatrick, while Schroeder stayed back to find help.

Castillo, who had lifeguard training as a teen, said he noticed Fitzpatrick looked “fatigued.”

“I was hyperventilating and going under,” Fitzpatrick recalled, “and I cried out ‘I can’t go on any longer,’ to which Castillo responded, ‘We’re not dying today! We’re in this together, and we’re coming out on top!’ ”

Castillo said he then put Fitzpatrick in a back float on top of himself, and tried to calm him. “He was coughing up water,” Castillo said, adding he tried to kick them to shore, but realized he wasn’t making much progress.

Castillo decided to wait until help arrived, reassuring Fitzpatrick, who kept cycling through panic as he became more aware of the distance they had drifted from the beach.

Fitzpatrick recalled Castillo’s ability to help his breathing return to normal and keep him calm until help wam up.

Meanwhile, Schroeder had found surfer Dan Ryan, who “showed up on a board and got me safely back to shore,” Fitzpatrick said.

Castillo estimated: “The entire rescue took about 15 or 20 minutes.”

Once on sandy ground, Castillo said, “I was so gassed. I was exhausted from the swim and ensuing adrenaline rush and, not wanting to overwhelm Patrick, who was in shock, I walked home with Schroeder to rest and process the events, knowing Patrick was safely on shore with others.”

Fitzpatrick said he felt similarly spent and collapsed “from sheer exhaustion at the edge of the water. I thought to thank the man who just saved my life, but I could only see him heading up the stairs. I stood to try to get to him, but just fell back down.”

Once back home and recovered, Fitzpatrick began to search for Castillo. He contacted news stations and posted a plea on, asking for help in locating his champion. “I had some deep emotions,” Fitzpatrick said, “and a heap of gratitude that I was compelled to share with him. I also wanted to apologize to him for putting his life in danger.”

“I didn’t know Patrick was looking for me,” Castillo said of the weeks after the accident. Then, he saw the interview with Fitzpatrick on ABC 10 News, and afterward, a message came through from Castillo’s friend who had seen Fitzpatrick’s post, finally connecting the two men together.

Nearly a month after the rescue, Castillo and Fitzpatrick reunited over lunch at Bernini’s.

“Patrick was very thankful,” Castillo said. “He was happy to be able to conclude that time, and I was happy to be able to help.”

For Fitzpatrick, their meeting was healing. “He told me some things that helped me get through the flashbacks I was having and recover from the trauma.”

Castillo said he and Patrick have stayed in contact since their meeting, talking about subjects aside from their fateful introduction.

For Fitzpatrick, his accident was the conduit to what he hopes is an enduring friendship: “We share an amazing personal bond that no one will understand.”