A young girl was rescued from harsh ocean waves, thanks to the combined efforts of two local men and a set of lucky circumstances.
Neil Garrett of Santee and his wife, Amber, were walking the beach at La Jolla Shores north of Scripps Memorial Pier on May 14. His three sons, ages 5, 8 and 10, were kickboarding in shallower waves, often interacting with a 10-year-old girl using a bodyboard nearby.
“Her dad was playing with her at first,” Garrett said of the girl, whose name is unknown. “He went out to surf the big waves.”
The girl’s mother was walking the beach and lost sight of her, Garrett said.
Bird Rock resident Jack Barone, who was surfing several yards out, said the day’s conditions were rough, with “high surf and low intervals, which means the waves were crashing very quickly one after another.”
There also was a “really gnarly riptide about 30 yards wide,” he said.
Garrett said the girl’s father went ashore from surfing and screamed “Where is she?” to her mother, and the parents began a frantic search of the waves.
Garrett and his wife joined the search, scanning the beach. “There were no lifeguards nearby at the moment,” he said.
The search was difficult, Garrett said, because “the waves were so constant; there were a lot of blind spots in between the waves.”
"[The girl is] nowhere to be seen,” he said.
The girl’s mother headed north to make sure she hadn’t wandered off. The father ran south to alert the lifeguards at The Shores towers, Garrett said.
“Five minutes go by of me looking by myself, and I just don’t see her,” Garrett said. “I said to my wife, ‘If she is out there, her chances aren’t good.’
“As I’m saying that, I see a little black spot. It looked like a sea lion. But [the girl] did have dark hair.”
Garrett handed his wallet, keys and phone to his wife and walked into the water until he couldn’t stand.
“I start swimming. I get through three big swells before I come up on her. She’s unconscious, unresponsive,” he said. “I’m yelling at her, ‘Can you hear me? I’m here for you; I’m going to get you to shore.’
“I grab her left arm and pull it over my shoulder, propping it against my chest. She looks dead to me, blue in the face, white and purple lips. I start to sidestroke with one arm, holding onto her,” Garrett said. But his efforts didn’t get them very far.
“A big wave hits me; it pushes us both down pretty far,” he said. “The undertow sucks us right back, further out than where I found her.”
Panicked and fatigued from treading water and struggling to hold the girl, Garrett worried for his own safety. “I [was] wondering if I have to let her go to save my own life,” he said.
Several yards away, Barone “caught the perfect wave” that “ran me … right into where she was,” he said. “They were getting sloshed in the impact zone, which is where all the waves are breaking.”
Garrett said Barone “looked at me in disbelief. I yelled, ‘Help me save her.’ He acts quick, throws her on the board.”
Barone kicked behind his surfboard, getting himself and the girl to shore while Garrett swam behind them.
From the moment the girl was brought in, it was an “all-hands effort” to save her, Garrett said. He yelled to his wife, who alerted the girl’s mother and called 911. Garrett’s eldest son ran to flag down the lifeguards in their trucks while Barone began performing CPR.
Moments later, Garrett said, the still-unconscious girl began coughing up water.
“Lumps of sand come pouring out of her mouth,” he said.
Barone said he couldn’t believe the “copious amounts of water coming out of such a small body. I turned her head sideways to [help her avoid] asphyxiation.”
Lifeguards and paramedics arrived and took over the CPR efforts, according to Monica Muñoz, a representative of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
“It’s chaos, fast as can be,” Garrett said. “They loaded her into this ambulance beach truck and drove off with the parents.”
Barone checked in later with the lifeguards, who said the girl was “stable, breathing and conscious” by the time she was taken to a hospital. Muñoz confirmed that.
After hearing the girl had regained consciousness, Garrett marveled at the providence that day, “first to show her to me and to bring Jack right to us. There were angels in the ocean that day.”
Barone, who called his involvement “a crazy happenstance,” said he’s “very grateful to have been able to do something for her and that family.”
Garrett expressed gratitude for Barone’s help and all who “came together to save this little girl’s life.” ◆