June 11 was a typical afternoon at North Charleston’s Danny Jones pool.
Katie Robbins and other lifeguards watched from their chairs as swimmers stroked and kicked their way the length of the 50-meter indoor pool. Down and back. Down and back.
Sometimes watching swimmers practice can get tedious.
At about 3:30 p.m., Katie, 15, noticed that the man in the far lane had not come up from under water in a while.
She climbed down the three steps of her chair and headed toward the end of his lane, which was on the opposite side of the pool from her post.
Before she could get there, another swimmer came up from under water in that spot asking for help: There was an unconscious man under water.
Head lifeguard Jacob Brault, 20, who was patrolling the end of the pool, was closest. He jumped in to help retrieve the victim, while Katie helped stabilize his head.
“It was basically like dragging a dead body out of the water,” said Jacob, a third-year guard.
The guards assessed the swimmer “and it sounded like he was breathing, but then his face started turning a little blue,” Jacob continued. “We reassessed and checked for a pulse and breathing again. He had no pulse and no breathing, so we started CPR immediately.”
Easton McArdle, 16, who was certified as a lifeguard just two months ago, arrived at the scene with his breathing mask already out and administered mouth-to-mouth, working alongside Jacob.
“The thing that really struck me was the sound of the water in his lungs as I was pushing,” Jacob said.
After two or three rounds of CPR, the man started breathing.
A nurse who was at the facility also offered advice and assistance.
“When we rolled him into recovery position, he vomited blood,” said Katie, who, like Easton, was just certified in April. As the man came to, he began convulsing and, in his confusion, fighting with and yelling at those who were trying to help him.
Now they tried to calm him as North Charleston Fire Department arrived and took over his care.
Throughout the facility, about a dozen guards on duty had all sprung into emergency mode – calling 911, clearing the pool of swimmers, bringing out the Automated External Defibrillator (AED), and watching for emergency help to arrive.
Some guards assisted patrons navigating their vehicles around the fire truck in the crammed parking lot or detained in the lobby youngsters arriving for their 4 p.m. swim practice.
“I am so proud of our guards,” said Aquatics Director Bora Yatagan. “Everybody reacted in the right way.”
For lifeguards, keeping swimmers safe is their primary duty.
“We make saves almost every day, but those are usually easy reach-and-goes, like a child falls in and you grab him,” said Scarlett Hosenfeld, also a head lifeguard. “It’s a whole different ballgame when you have to get CPR going.”
The man was frequent visitor to Danny Jones but guards did not know his name.
EMS arrived and transported him to MUSC, where he was later identified as an Air Force aircraft maintenance technician. (Name withheld for privacy.)
On June 12, he was in good condition but expected to stay in the hospital for a few days to make sure he does not develop pneumonia or an infection, his supervisor said.
Dreaming of being a pararescuer, the man was training at Danny Jones by doing a dangerous practice called “breath holders” or swimming a long distance without coming up for air. It can lead to loss of consciousness underwater, also known as “shallow-water blackout,” and possibly death.
Medical personnel highly discourage the practice.
After the emergency, the guards returned to their duties, telling themselves such situations are all in a day’s work.
“We had to stay strong for everybody else,” Jacob explained. “Some guards were pretty shaken, but we kept it together for them.”