La. wildlife agent pulls girl, 7, out from under capsized boat and performs CPR
EMS providers were ready at the shore, but as they transported the patient, she stopped breathing again and they had to stabilize her
By Michelle Hunter
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — Sgt. Stephen Rhodes wasn’t even supposed to be at Grand Isle Beach the evening he rescued a near-drowned 7-year-old girl from the underside of a capsized boat and revived her as her frantic family watched.
It’s just one in a string of “astronomical” coincidences that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries agent said put him and other good Samaritans in the right place at the right time to save the Baton Rouge girl’s life Saturday evening.
“There’s a ton of little things that happened that gave her the perfect opportunity to survive,” Rhodes said. “If I talk plainly, God was not ready for her.”
The unidentified 7-year-old is expected to make a full recovery after her harrowing rescue, according to Wildlife and Fisheries.
“I had front row seats to a miracle,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes’ actual assignment for the day had him in Golden Meadow, about 28 miles away from Grand Isle Beach, patrolling the waterways. But he made his way to Grand Isle after receiving a complaint about people violating fish catching limits.
Rhodes was on the sand writing a citation at about 6:40 p.m. when he saw a 20-foot boat with an outboard motor that appeared to be struggling with high waves near the beach’s rock jetties.
“I thought he was going to flip his boat right there,” Rhodes said of the operator, who appeared to be picking up people from the beach.
Rhodes had turned his attention back to the ticket after the boat made it to what he thought were safer waters. But another beachgoer called out to Rhodes when the boat capsized.
Rhodes immediately took off running for his truck and boat, which he’d parked about 1,000 yards away at the Bridgeside Marina. His flight caught the eye of three men in a four-seat, all-terrain vehicle with whom he’d briefly chatted earlier.
The men raced him to the parking lot, helped Rhodes unstrap his boat and get the vessel quickly into the water.
When Rhodes made it to the overturned boat, he noticed three children in life vests and five adults atop the hull.
“There were multiple screams. ‘Please, help us. Our sister is in the water,’” Rhodes recalled.
As he moved the group, which included the girl’s frantic mother and father, to the safety of his vessel, another boater motored up. The second boater kept Rhodes’ boat in place while he jumped into the water to search for the girl.
The girl’s brother told Rhodes that she had been wearing a life jacket when the boat overturned.
“When he said that, I knew there were only two options: She slipped the jacket because it was oversized, or the lifejacket has her trapped under the boat,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes jumped into the water and used his arms legs to feel around on the underside of the boat. He felt what he thought was the girl near the bow. He dove under, grabbed her shirt and lifejacket and pulled her to the surface.
But she wasn’t breathing.
“Her eyes were open, and her gaze was fixed. She was not blinking,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes put the little girl on the back of his boat and began CPR.
For a moment, Rhodes said the girl’s tiny body reminded him of his oldest child, Samantha.
“This could be my daughter,” he recalled thinking.
Rhodes performed one round of chest compressions and two breaths. Just after he performed two more rescue breaths, he saw the girl’s eyes move and recenter.
“I took my hand and rested it on her chest, and I could feel her heart racing away,” Rhodes said.
The girl took a breath and Rhodes made sure to say, “She’s got a pulse,” loud enough for her worried mother to hear.
Rhodes said he believes there must have been a small amount of air trapped under the boat with the girl. Even though he was close by when the vessel overturned, it still took him more than 10 minutes to reach the boat.
“That’s way longer than any person should be deprived of oxygen,” he said.
Back at the marina, a waiting ambulance began the trip to nearby Lady of the Sea General Hospital in Galliano. But the girl stopped breathing and paramedics lost her pulse during the trip, Rhodes said.
They restabilized her, and medical personnel made the decision to airlift her to Children’s Hospital in New Orleans where she remained in stable condition, according to authorities.
Once the girl was safely away, and the intensity of the moment faded, Rhodes said he volunteered to retrieve the capsized boat as a way to escape the scene. He needed to collect himself, decompress and process the overwhelming moments of the rescue.
“I needed that private moment to not break down,” he said.
Rhodes said it has been humbling to be called a hero and pointed to the work of the nameless good Samaritans and medical personnel who helped treat her.
“I may have ‘ooped’ but they ‘alley-ed,’” Rhodes said, borrowing from the basketball slang for an assisted score.
He also didn’t want the praise to take away from the most important part of the entire rescue.
“If no one in the world knew I did anything, that little girl is alive, and at the end of the day, that’s everything,” Rhodes said.
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