'She was gone' Agent's heroic rescue of drowning girl trapped under boat
"When you see a life come back... there aren't words. It's humbling."
Sgt. Stephen Rhodes said he was in the right place at the right time.
It was late Saturday afternoon, the day before Mother's Day, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries officer was patrolling the coast near Timbalier Bay when he was told about some fishermen who were overfishing for shrimp on Grand Isle.
"I had no intention of even being on Grand Isle on that day," he said.
While citing the fishermen, Rhodes said he saw something dangerous - a smaller aluminum boat was maneuvering through the rock jetties to meet a family on the beach. Because of the confined space, the waves become rough and it's harder for a boat to maintain control.
"Initially, I thought, 'This is crazy! What is this guy doing? He's going to swamp his boat," Rhodes said.
The boater was able to get his boat under control, the family loaded onto the vessel and Rhodes went back to writing the ticket.
"The situation was not safe, but it's sorted. So it's okay," Rhodes said. "I kept glancing up and noticed that the boat got out of the jetties. I thought, 'Okay. He's safe, he's good. Not something I need to worry about."
He returned to the ticket, then someone shouted that they saw the boat flip.
Race Against Time: 'I knew it was game on'
"I turn and look and - my best guess is 400 - 500 yards past the rock jetties into the Gulf of Mexico - I could see that the boat had overturned with people starting to climb up onto the hull of the boat," Rhodes said.
"At that point, I knew it was game on," he said.
Rhodes said he started running from the beach to get back to his patrol car, but it was more than 1,000 yards away. But as he was running, some good Samaritans who were riding an ATV saw him and offered him a ride back to his truck.
"I said, 'Man, I just had a boat flip.' They said, 'Hop on board, we will take you to your truck,'" Rhodes said.
He said the good Samaritans offered to stay with him and his truck until he could get his boat into the water. Rhodes said their actions saved a "tremendous" amount of time getting him into the Gulf.
Rhodes pulled alongside the overturned boat. Though the adults only spoke broken English, he learned that 7-year-old girl was still missing and most of the family could not swim.
In the Water: 'She had to be trapped under the vessel'
"Straight away they were saying, 'Our sister is in the water, you need to help us!'" Rhodes said.
Acting quickly, he loaded the people from the overturned vessel onto his boat. In the process, one of the girl's brothers said that she was wearing a life jacket.
"And instantly I knew that the only place for this little girl to be would be under the vessel," Rhodes said. "She had to be trapped under the vessel."
The girl's family was inconsolable. In another coincidence, Rhodes noticed another boat nearby and called for help. He needed another person to hold his boat in place so he could look for the girl. And so, another good Samaritan came to his aid, moving from his boat to Rhodes to hold it in place.
Rhodes pulled off his heavy gear and jumped into the Gulf. Grabbing onto the side of the boat, he knew that he could not safely swim under the vessel to search for the girl.
"Again, the thought came into my head: start using your legs. Stretch out under the vessel and start feeling with your legs. You have a greater reach with your legs," he said.
Rhodes worked his way from the back of the boat to the front where he felt what he thought was the little girl.
"I took a couple of deep breaths, dove underneath the boat, felt where I thought I felt her, and grabbed hold of her and part of her PFD, and pulled her out with me," Rhodes said.
Revived: 'When you see a life come back, there aren't words'
But when the pair surfaced, Rhodes said something was not right.
"I could see that she was gone. Her eyes were open, but they were not focused," he said.
The good Samaritan manning his boat pulled the girl onboard. Rhodes said they removed her life jacket but were not starting CPR. He swam around to his boat, said "give her to me," and started trying to revive the girl.
"After the second round of breaths, I saw the blank stare correct itself. I saw her eye come back into focus," he said.
He put his hand on her chest and felt her heart "going a million miles a minute, just pounding away."
"I kept my hand on her chest for a few minutes and felt it rise like the breath come in," Rhodes said.
Rhodes said he quickly sped back to Bridge Side Marina, at the same time radioing dispatch that he needed EMS immediately. What he did not know was that paramedics were already in place, ready at the marina and waiting to take the girl.
Robert Vegas witnessed Rhodes race back to the marina.
"He was just driving full speed to the boat launch," Vegas said. "I thought he was going to end up in the parking lot."
"I took my vessel and ramped it into the launch, and the EMS truck was literally right there. And as all that transpired, the good Samaritan that was with me on board my boat had the girl in his arms and handed her off to EMS," Rhodes said.
"Jumped out with the little girl in his arms. It just gives me chills talking about it," Vegas said. "he looked like he was in a movie like Superman, you know. Some superhero, you know."
The LDWF said that paramedics were able to stabilize the girl and she was later airlifted to Children's Hospital in New Orleans. The agency said that she is expected to make a full recovery. The girl was back at home in Baton Rouge on Monday and is doing well, her uncle says.
"When you see a life come back... there aren't words," Rhodes added. "It's humbling."
"I just happened to be closer," Rhodes said.
Rhodes said Saturday was not the first time he saved a life. Years before he was an LDWF agent, he said he saved a friend from choking by performing a Heimlich maneuver.
"These two incidents, you can't compare them," he said. "To know that she was gone and to see her come back, it's a completely different thing altogether."
The LDWF said nine people in total were on the boat when it capsized around 6:40 p.m. The agency thanked the good Samaritans that stepped up to help Rhodes during his rescue and saved time that probably made it possible to save her life.
“We are extremely proud of the actions of Sgt. Rhodes. He did an exceptional job of using good judgment and his training to help save the life of this young girl and the other occupants in the capsized vessel,” said Col. Chad Hebert. “Would also like to thank all of the good Samaritans that assisted in this successful rescue. Sgt. Rhodes was on patrol by himself and these good Samaritans helped him perform this rescue faster. That time saved probably made it possible to resuscitate the young girl.”
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