I’m back from my 45th summer vacation in Gearhart. As I mentioned before I left, Gearhart is my most favorite place on earth. Gearhart is a village of just under 1500 residents located on the northern coast of Oregon.
The First Tale
In August 2008, a small plane crashed into a home in Gearhart. “The house exploded into flames, killing three children: Julia, 10, of Southwest Portland, and her cousins, Sam, 12, and Grace 7, of Denver, Colo.” (Kimberley A.C. Wilson, The Oregonian). Julia’s mother and two siblings were also home and were Life Flighted back to Portland with serious injuries; they are all physically recovered now. The other adults in the house that morning had walked down to Pop’s Sweet Shop for coffee and scones, as is customary in Gearhart.
That’s all they did. They left to get coffee and returned to a house in flames and three children dead. For those families life would never be the same; Gearhart would never be the same.
The Second Tale
We got to the beach on Friday the 3rd. Brigid asked me that night if I would rent the girls wet suits for the week. Yes! That is a great idea, they’ll be warmer in the water and have more fun and exercise. I have been going to Gearhart since I was 2. I have a respect for the ocean and grew up instilled with awareness of the Pacific Ocean’s undertow and warnings to not go too far out. After renting the wet suits, I told the girls that wearing them could give them a false sense of security. “You still have to be careful.” They loved them! Lisa and her girls came down on Tuesday and brought their wet suits. Yay for wetsuits!
Early in the afternoon, last Wednesday, we all loaded up bags and towels and chairs and magazines tromped off to the beach for another glorious sunny day in Gearhart.
Before letting the girls take off for the water, Lisa and I got a bunch of pictures of our Malibu Barbies.
The girls went into the water. Lisa and I sat in our beach chairs flipping through magazines and chatting, chatting, chatting. Not much time had passed when I looked at the girls out in the water and thought, “that doesn’t look right.” I told Lisa that I thought they were too far out and she said, “but they’re standing.” I don’t care, I don’t want them standing in water that deep. We continue to talk and I’m watching the water.
Lisa’s daughter K. is waving at us and yelling, “Mom!” And Lisa says, “ohhh, she wants me to come swimming.” Lisa is a swimmer. I don’t like the looks of things and get up and start walking toward the water. Then K. is screaming my name. I pick up the pace and keep yelling at her “what?!” I thought if this kid is just screaming to scream, I’m going to punch her. When I know for a fact that she is screaming with fright because something is wrong, I start running into the water. I dive in and start swimming out. Lisa’s 15 year old, C. is coming at me and tells me that my girls can’t get back. I tell C. and K. to get on the beach and keep swimming. Brigid is closer to me. I realize that I can’t do this. I’m not physically able to get out far enough.
I feel like such a loser but I know I have to stop and leave my kids.
Leave. My. Kids.
I turned around and screamed for Lisa, who came running into the water and she went out after Annie. I swam out where I could talk to Brigid and told her I was there and it was okay. Told her to rest on her back for a bit and I would watch her. She finally got close enough that I could get an arm around her and swim her back in and get her on the beach. There was a woman and another couple on the beach calling 9-1-1. Gearhart is not a busy beach. Even on her busiest days, it’s not that crowded and there are not any lifeguards.
I swam back out and waited and watched Lisa swim out to Annie. I prayed. I think I had a second of wanting to get hysterical but knew that was not going to help anything. So I waited and prayed and believed that I had made the right choice in letting Lisa go get Annie.
I’m writing this today so clearly there was a happy ending. The police and the fire department arrived just as Annie and Lisa were coming out of the water. They had called a Coast Guard helicopter which was en route and happily they got to tell them to turn around.
I think the whole event took less than 15 minutes. I think.
As Lisa has said, that day we all had to choose between the tough option and the tougher option. All the choices made were the right ones and resulted in a positive outcome. No one panicked. I think Annie was in shock but she listened to Lisa and didn’t claw at her or flail around in the water. Lisa’s 30-year-old lifeguard training came to her instantly. I didn’t add fuel to the fire and get myself stuck out there. K. listened to her sister, when C. said, “get out of the water and get mom.”
None of the girls could pinpoint when the fun stopped and the riptide took over. The Pacific Ocean in Oregon is cold. I never got cold. I didn’t even realize how freaked out I was until I had to sign waivers for the girls not to go to the hospital. My hand was shaking so badly I could barely sign my name. Lisa and I have both tried to downplay the severity of the situation but at the time we didn’t know if anyone was coming. We didn’t know a helicopter was on the way. We didn’t know if Lisa, without a wet suit, would get cold and cramp up or if Annie would panic and take them both down. We just didn’t know.
Two Families, Two Vacations
I have no idea why this summer my children were spared and in 2008, the other children weren’t.
No one did anything wrong. As I told Annie, her number wasn’t up.
I know and love plenty of people who don’t believe in God or believe in Something but not sure what it is or are devout Christians or Catholics or Jews. I believe in God. I believe in the power of prayer and the comfort of knowing that I have back up. I’m not alone. I am grateful for that faith. I’m grateful Annie has that faith; that she prayed while she was out past the second break of the waves. She didn’t know if anyone was coming. She thought she was going to die. She was calm and prayed.
I don’t think God is micro-managing earth and picking and choosing what happens everyday. I think the same thing that saved my kids was the same thing that got them out there in the first place…those wetsuits. But belief in God comforts me and I hope it comforts the families who tragically and horrifically lost children four summers ago.
I pray for the parents of Julia and Sam and Grace.
I remember clipping Julia’s obituary out of the paper and saving it to remind me how short and precious life is.
I don’t even know where I’m going with this. These are two stories from Gearhart, that shook me deeply but I thought of God instantly. We weren’t alone out there.