Fla. cop recalls horrific Jet Ski crash rescue

Officer Darin Hederian said he was certain the crash had killed the two victims -- but they both survived

By Jorge Milian
Palm Beach Post

BOYNTON BEACH — Officer Darin Hederian has been with Boynton Beach police's marine unit for 17 years and worked countless crashes involving personal watercraft.

He knows a deadly wreck when he sees one.

And that's what Hederian thought he had on his hands when he pulled up to a WaveRunner that smashed into a Intracoastal Waterway seawall on Jan. 2. He found the two occupants of the vessel wearing floatation devices, but face down and motionless in the water.

"My initial assessment of both these individuals was they they were deceased," Hederian said.

That opinion didn't change after Hederian used a pole equipped with a hook to fish the crash victims out of the water and into his boat. Neither was breathing.

Hederian and another marine officer hoisted the two victims over a seawall into the arms of rescue personnel. Someone remarked that one of the two people was alive.

"So we knew there might be a chance," Hederian said.

Unlike similar crashes that Hederian has worked during his career, this one has a relatively happy ending. Both victims — a man and woman who police did not identify — sustained critical injuries, but survived.

The man is recuperating in a hospital while the woman is recovering in her home, according to police.

The occupants of the WaveRunner were in the water riding for only around five minutes when they crashed just south of the Two Georges Waterfront Grille restaurant, police said. They rented the personal watercraft, meaning they were likely inexperienced in its handling, Boynton Beach Police Off. Gregg Koch said.

The vessel can travel at 60 mph, although police said they do not know how fast the WaveRunner was moving when it crashed. Renters are normally given brief and rudimentary instructions on its operation, Koch said.

"It doesn't have air bags, it doesn't have brakes, it doesn't have seat belts and when you hit a concrete wall, it just does not give," Koch said.

Crashes involving personal watercraft are soaring in boat-crazy Florida.

There were 186 accidents in the state during 2019, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That's a five-year high and 66 more crashes than in 2018.

Those 186 crashes accounted for 169 injuries — nearly doubling 2018's total — and six fatalities.

Palm Beach County ranked fourth in the state behind Miami-Dade, Monroe and Pinellas counties with 11 crashes in 2019. The county's last fatality involving a personal watercraft occurred in 2016, according to the FWC.

That run of good fortune appeared over on Jan. 2 and might have been without Hederian's quick response.

Hederian was on routine patrol around 12:15 p.m. when he received a call from dispatchers reporting a crash with two bodies in the water. He estimates arriving at the scene within three to five minutes.

With the occupants of the WaveRunner in the water and their faces submerged, Hederian said the short response time "was crucial in this case."

So were the life jackets both victims were wearing. Unconscious as a result of the impact, the man and woman likely would have sunk without the floatation aids.

"Although their heads were underwater, the life jacket did keep them afloat and made it possible for me to see them," Hederian said.

Even so, Hederian initially thought he hadn't arrived soon enough. One of the victims had lacerations to the head and both gushed salt water out of their mouths, but no breaths.

A harrowing video of the incident released by police shows one officer applying chest compressions to the male victim while another officer attempts to pump water from the man's stomach. The man is rolled over onto his side and a few seconds later, an officer checks his pulse and announces, "OK, we have agonal breathing."

Agonal breathing is a medical term referring to the gasping someone does while struggling to breath following a health emergency.

"In my 20 years [with the marine unit], I've never seen an end result like this with a crash of this extent," Koch said.

Koch said that crashes involving personal watercraft are common locally during tourist season when waves of novices seek thrills on the water. According to the FWC, 58 percent of personal watercraft operators involved in accidents during 2019 had no boater education and 57 percent were on rented or borrowed watercraft when the incidents took place.

"My advice to the people who are actually renting them is spend a little more time with the education process while they're on the dock," Koch said.

Hederian said he was left with "mixed feelings", dismayed the crash occurred in the first place but feeling relief "that this case had such a positive turnout considering what we initially saw when we arrived on the scene."

(c)2021 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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