On Friday evening, local married couple Neil and Cynthia Nickerson planned on taking their 27-foot sea sport boat, the “Vitamin Sea,” down to Holkham Bay about 40 miles south of Juneau for a weekend getaway.
But their plans changed drastically when they noticed something in the water just as they left the Douglas harbor: a small piece of red suiting. It was mostly submerged and only about six inches of the material bobbed above the surface.
The couple dismissed the sign and thought someone’s exposure suit had simply blown out of their boat until they heard a broadcast over Channel 16 of their marine radio.
“Hey, boat that just passed in front of me, can you help?”
It was then the couple said they realized the red suit was a person in the water.
Unbeknownst to them, a 14-foot skiff struck a 24-foot fiberglass boat just minutes before. The forceful collision had thrown the 47-year-old man aboard the smaller vessel overboard.
Upon hearing the plea for help over the broadcast, the Nickersons stopped their boat and turned around, all the while talking with the Coast Guard. They said the Coast Guard immediately dispatched ambulances to the scene after confirming their location, but said they couldn’t arrive by boat for another 15 minutes.
“They’re saying it’s going to take 15 minutes for them to get there, and I’m thinking, ‘This guy does not have 15 minutes to wait. We gotta do something right now,’” Cynthia told the Empire during a joint interview with her husband on Tuesday.
As the couple eased up alongside the person, they feared the worst. They said he wasn’t wearing a life jacket or personal flotation device, and his head was not propped up. He must have been underwater for several minutes, and he also had a deep gash on his face, they said.
They tried pulling him into their boat, but his suit was so heavy with water they couldn’t lift him. They managed to keep his head and shoulders above the water as they held onto him over the side of the boat.
Luckily, another couple appeared at the harbor, which is located next to Sandy Beach, and the Nickersons waved at them frantically for help. The man and woman recognized the urgency of the situation and drove their boat over to help. The four worked together to roll the man onto the other couple’s skiff.
“And actually as we were holding him up, he coughed,” Neil said. “And then a couple more times. As we’re getting him into the skiff, he’d cough again, and more fluid — water — would come out of his nose and mouth. That was the first encouraging sign we saw.”
Cynthia, 51, who happens to be a registered nurse who works at Bartlett Regional Hospital as a diabetes specialist, ran over to the cabin of her boat to grab the CPR mask she always carries in her purse. She jumped back over to the skiff and was prepared to begin CPR, which she has to be re-certified in every other year.
But before she did, she rolled the man over on his side in the “rescue position” which allows water to escape from the mouth without going back in.
“He actually started breathing, and he was breathing at a regular rate, which was — I was stunned,” she said, adding that he was still unconscious. “I started yelling at him and started pounding on his back saying, ‘Come on, come on, cough that stuff out. Keep with us, keep breathing, keep breathing.”
By the time the skiff pulled into the launch ramp at the harbor, Capital City Fire and Rescue paramedics were on the scene. They placed the man onto a gurney and whisked him away in an ambulance.
“They were really, really quick to respond,” Neil said.
Cynthia said she believed the man gained consciousness before he left because she believes he told the paramedics his name and that he was cold.
“I think he said he was cold because I heard the paramedics say, ‘Oh, you’re cold? We’ll getcha warm,’” she said. “I was just stunned. Absolutely stunned because I just — we thought it was not going to be a good outcome.”
After the ambulance left, Neil retrieved the man’s unattended skiff that was still doing slow donuts around Mayflower Island. The couple stayed at the scene as responding police officers conducted interviews and took photographs of the boats as part of their investigation.
The Nickersons' involvement in the incident lasted somewhere between 10 and 12 minutes, although they said it’s impossible to measure time in the kind of mindset they were in.
Authorities have not released the man’s name, and without that information the hospital cannot confirm a patient’s condition. The Juneau Police Department did not respond to an inquiry requesting such information Tuesday morning.
The Nickersons said they don’t know what happened to the man but heard that he is alive and fighting for his life at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Police could not confirm that.
In a press release late Tuesday afternoon, police said that alcohol appears to be a contributing factor in the accident. Police seized blood from the man while he was at BRH, and it will be tested at a facility, JPD spokesman Lt. David Campbell said in a press release. It is now known when the results will be back.
The press release said that the other motorist involved in the collision, aboard the bigger 24-foot fiberglass vessel, was not injured. That boat was operated by a 91-year-old man, the department said. JPD withheld his name, too. The Nickersons believe it was his voice they heard over the radio asking for help.
The release did not say if anyone has been cited. The investigation is ongoing.
Neil, 53, a retired commander in the Coast Guard and an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, teaches maritime classes, including cold water survival classes. He said one thing that can be learned from this boating accident is that people should always wear life jackets on the water.
“We were lucky to even see him because he wasn’t floating above the water. He was floating just at the water’s surface and his head was underwater,” he said.
“And that’s why we didn’t know it was a person at first is because we didn’t see any body features,” Cynthia added. “That’s what’s important to us, and that’s why we’re talking. It just goes to prove how very important it is to be safe on the water.”
They said the red colored material they initially saw in the water was actually just a dry suit, which is supposed to keep a person dry and warm should they fall into the water. It has rubber seals around the neck and wrist to keep water out, but it is not buoyant.
The identities of the other couple who assisted the Nickersons could not be confirmed by press time. But the Nickersons said their help was invaluable.
“If they had not been there, I don’t know if we could have gotten him out of the water ourselves,” Neil said.
“They were at the right place at the right time,” Cynthia said, nodding in agreement.
The Nickersons say they are keeping the man in their prayers.
“We’re praying for him and his family,” Cynthia said, “and hoping he heals and recovers quickly and completely.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.