Dinner & a Rescue: Off-duty Coast Guardsman takes life-saving action in NC pier collapse

Coast Guard Station Fort Macon Fireman James D. Sanders, Jr., stands outside the station, Friday, May 20, 2016. Sanders witnessed a pier collapse in Beaufort while he was off duty May 11, 2016, and immediately took action to save the lives of several women who fell in the water. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn)

BEAUFORT, N.C. (WNCT) – It was an off-duty Coast Guardsman who took action to save five women after the pier outside a waterfront restaurant in Beaufort collapsed underneath them nearly two weeks ago.

The women, all senior citizens, were plunged into Taylor’s Creek eight feet below. They clung to the collapsed structure in water too deep for them to stand surrounded by oyster beds and wooden pilings.

It happened on the evening of May 11th.

The Coast Guard said Tuesday that off-duty Coast Guardsman, Fireman James D. Sanders, Jr., of Wedowee, Alabama, was having dinner with his girlfriend at the same restaurant, and saw the whole thing happen. He also rushed to help.

“After the pier collapsed, for a moment we all went completely underwater,” said Kay Cochron of Albemarle, who’d suffered heart problems in the past. “When we came up, a young gentleman climbed over the restaurant’s deck railing and jumped in. He swam to us and started reassuring us immediately that help would come and we would be fine. My friends were concerned for me and we were also tangled up in some fishing line.”

Sanders, just eight months in the U.S. Coast Guard at Station Fort Macon, yelled for onlookers to grab whatever floatation devices they could find and spoke with reassurance to the women. Keeping them huddled together, Sanders spotted a dock about 35 feet away.

“Luckily, the current wasn’t too bad at this particular time so I was able to keep them huddled around the woman with heart issues to keep her warm,” explained Sanders, whose request for floatation was answered when some pool noodles were located and passed down. He retrieved the floating noodles and slid one under each woman. A good Samaritan also arrived with a kayak to help. Sanders then organized the transfer of the women, one by one, to safety on a nearby dock.

“He told my friends, ‘I will not leave her, y’all go on, I’ve got her,’” said Cochron. “He said, ‘I’ve got you.’ He kept us from panicking – really kept us calm. He and another guy, EMS I believe, got me under the arm and got me to the dock.”

Two of the five women were already out of the water by the time the Beaufort Fire Department arrived on scene.

“He was a blessing to us,” said Cochron.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Sanders said about the incident. “Normally, the current at that location is much stronger. This happened during an ideal tide. Luck was on everyone’s side. I did what any Coast Guardsman would have done. Helping people is what we do, on duty or off.”

Sanders said that he hopes to become an aviation maintenance technician and eventually get qualified as a flight mechanic, a person responsible for operating a helicopter hoist in emergency situations.

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