Puerto Rico. I'm here for a week with my family, visiting from Ohio for what we all feel is a much needed vacation. The journey here was flawless, if somewhat tiring. We left our home shortly after 3 A.M., arriving at the airport less than an hour later for a flight another hour and a half after that. At about noon we touched down at San Juan International Airport. We took a taxi to our hotel in Condado, a quaint little establishment dwarfed next to the more expensive Marriott, and dropped off our luggage before embarking out to find some food.
We walked around some in search of fine dining and, in the fashion of a true red-blooded American family, ended up with a belly full of Burger King. It wasn't great, I suppose, not any different from any Burger King I've had a few hundred miles north-west from here, but we were fed and happy and excited to begin relaxing. We were all in agreement about the relaxing. By 5 P.M. everybody was asleep, recuperating from the night of sleeplessness we were on the heels of. Everybody but me, that is. I had decided to take a nice calm walk along the beach.
By this point the sun was still high but not quite as high as the tall hotel buildings all around us, leaving everything was cloaked in a cool thin shadow. It seemed perfect. I walked the length of the beach, climbing up on a stone pier just in front of another hotel near ours to look out over the ocean. When I saw the girls in the water thrashing and yelling for help, I first wrote it off as a joke, some kind of immature game that was ultimately harmless.
“Help!” they both yelled. Still, I thought it was nothing. Then, “Seriously, help!” and I started to feel like maybe it wasn't. I turned around to head back down the pier but only slowly. Nobody else was moving to them although I'm sure dozens of people could hear and see but, “seriously,” she said.
I've heard a lot of talk about it since I relayed the events to my wife but, trust me, I'm no hero. I'm not brave or noble. My first thought was that I couldn't swim well enough to help and that maybe I should just keep walking, pretending that I didn't hear. Again, I'm from Ohio. Land-locked is the term that comes to mind. I'm not a strong swimmer at all. What I really wanted to do but was run but, no, how could I do that? I should at least be on the shore to help pull them in once somebody else had done the real helping. Then I made the mistake of looking one of the two girls in the eyes. “Please,” she said to me. She had made it to the stony walls of the pier while the other was still thrashing about in the water. “Please, my cousin is drowning.”
I think I told her at first, “I'll get somebody,” tried to explain that my sub-par swimming prowess would be about as helpful as a Coca-Cola, but all I got out was, “I... I...” Then I took to the water. Somebody else was going in around the same time and they got to her first. I treaded water around the scene for a minute, not expecting to be any help. The first person there had her for a moment while another person brought her a child-sized life jacket. She raked and clawed at the first in desperation, clinging so tightly to his neck that he could neither swim nor breathe, and soon both of those two had given up and gone back to shore. I got to her at the same time as another person but by then she was only listlessly keeping her head above water.
Somehow we had a life preserver, though I can't profess to know where it came from or how we got it. We both clung to it, me with one arm through the middle and wrapped around one of her arms, and started paddling towards the shore. She made a feeble attempt to grab me I think, her fingers curling ever so slightly against the left arm that was entwined around her.
I couldn't keep her above water with just an arm so I somehow managed to shift until I had her by her torso but even that wasn't enough. He lips were blue and foam ran from her mouth and nose below eyes that might have been pretty if they hadn't been staring so blankly without blinking. I kept her head above the surface for as long as I could, while we fought to get close to a shore that never seemed to move.
The other person said, “I think we're stuck out here,” and we was right. With each wave we gave a big push and made some headway but the same waves quickly swept us back out with them. We weren't any further out but not much closer, either. Soon she couldn't muster the strength to keep her head above water or maybe she'd already lost it and we had lost the strength the keep it there. Her face was bobbing just under the surface but what could I do? I could have stopped swimming to support her, I suppose, and valiantly gone down myself.
When I could I boosted her head up, still seeing the same foam and impossibly blue lips, pale skin, distant eyes. I told her sweet little lies hoping she could hear them but mostly to calm myself, almost certain she couldn't. I couldn't bring myself to tell her that things were going to be okay; I was already fairly certain what I was doing was not rescue so much as retrieval. I told her not to worry, that we'd be out soon, that we were going to get her back to the shore, and then let her head slip back under water where she continued to breathe just as much as she was when her head was above.
Eventually somebody found a long rescue pole and, once we had struggled close enough, a chain of people helped drag the three of us to the beach. I don't know how long we were out there, maybe minutes or hours or weeks, but when we finally got back every muscle in my body was burning except in the arm I had used to hold her limp body to me.
I literally collapsed on the beach while she was pulled from the waves. Some people who acted like they knew what they were doing tried to give her CPR for a few minutes but the gaggle of onlookers that had crowded around her now were so obviously there just to snag some heroic attention that even the morbid scene that had gathered them all was almost comical.
I've never seen a person so pale in my life. I remember when my father died, sitting at his bed for an hour before bothering to call an ambulance just so I could have those last few minutes alone with my old man, and how much more color he had, even when I though he couldn't lose any more. That was no comparison. Hollywood make-up artists really do a great job. The portrayals of ivory skin and vivid purple lips are eerily accurate.
The policia arrived a few minutes later. Two officers stood by and watched while people continued chest compressions. Her belly was heaving with each one, bloated and round with sea water, but she still wasn't moving or breathing. I found the guy who had helped me, thanked him for all he did and apologized for not being able to help more. I told him I wasn't a strong swimmer.
He told me he wasn't either and apologized for sounding negative about getting to shore. I told him he was right and that if she survived it was because of what he did. That was the best either of us could manage. We were both exhausted and, even if we hadn't been, what words are there at a time like that? The other girl who had been out there thanked me with tears in her eyes and hugged me close. I had even fewer words for her. I know I said that I was sorry, that I was so sorry, maybe I told her that I tried my best but I can't be too sure. I still hadn't looked away from the girl lying on the beach.
An older woman was curled up next to the young girl on the ground, screaming and crying something in Spanish that I was happy to not understand. An American woman was yelling for an AED, proudly declaring that all the nearby hotels had to have one or they could get sued, they could get sued so bad, they would be sued for everything they had if they didn't have one. Her impossibly round belly, pregnant with salt water, was still heaving. I didn't stop any of it. I didn't tell them that she was dead, even though it must have been half an hour since I saw her out there taking those first few gulps, and maybe she wasn't. I didn't tell them that all a defibrillator would do while her lungs were still full of water was shock the shit out of her, and maybe it could do more. I didn't tell the woman who must have been her mother that everything would be alright, and maybe I could have even managed that lie to her, still full of dark skin tone.
The paramedics eventually arrived behind a thin howl of sirens, one in full paramedic garb while the other was barefoot and wearing a blue button-up shirt. I didn't watch what they did, if they did anything. I just paced around the perimeter of the circle hoping and worrying and thinking about how long I had spent cradling a corpse. Then I left. I'm not made for these sorts of things, I don't have the emotional integrity needed to watch that over the screams of mourning and sirens. I went back to my room slowly, wondering if I could even force my legs to keep moving long enough to get there, and flipped on the light. My wife was immediately upright in bed and awake, clearly scared that I had so unceremoniously awoken her.
I still had enough sense to say, before anything else, “I'm alright. The kids are alright.” I asked her to come outside, up to the rooftop where we could smoke a cigarette without being accosted (smoking in Puerto Rico is illegal everywhere except in your own home and in a car when no children are present) and told her what had happened.
Soon people were responding to something she put on Facebook calling me a hero and saying how brave I was. I wanted to tell them all that the girl was still dead, that all I really did was gamble with the life of a father and husband to retrieve a body. What I did wasn't brave, it was just all I could think to do, and it certainly wasn't smart. She was young, and a mother should never have to watch her daughter die, but I have four kids, a fifth on the way, a wife and a mother of my own that's alone without her own husband now.
Her name was Jazmin Bulciaga. I searched the web for hours after that until I found some vague report, all in Spanish and poorly translated with the help of Google. She was pronounced dead at 6:40 that day while en route to a local hospital. If I had been some kind of hero, bravely plunging into the depths while she was still thrashing, if I'd been there to help the first person who almost drowned trying to save her, maybe she would have made it there. I keep hearing that I shouldn't think that way, that I did everything I could, and I'm glad to have so much support in my life and happy to be alive, but how else could anybody consider that? The article said she was a tourist, though not where she was from, and that she had been there with her parents. I never did tell them I was sorry but I don't suppose that would have helped much more than anything else I did.