Posted by: monsonmadness | July 16, 2012

“Mommy, I drowned in the ocean with JJ”

This has been a traumatic day. Today is a holiday in American Samoa, the Manu’a Island Cession Day holiday to be exact, so Michael had the day off work. We decided to meet some friends for a morning swim and picnic at Fatu ma Futi, the closest and safest swimming spot, which we’ve been to dozens of times.

All was fine for the first hour and half. I gave the older four children swimming lessons, and we watching as they splashed around collecting shells, snorkeling, finding blue starfish, pulling each other on boogie boards, and squirting each other with noodles. It is great to see Mary and Emma gaining so much confidence in the water, though of course, we still make them wear floaties (arm bands) whenever we’re at the beach. Daniel isn’t a very good swimmer either, so he has to wear floaties unless he’s having a swimming lesson. Matthew usually hangs out on the sand and watches everyone else.

There is a small beach area at Fatu ma Futi and then across the water about 15 feet, a small island which the kids love to swim/walk over to and explore. Today the water was so shallow that even Emma walked across by herself for the first time. It was great.

Our friends were late, and so when they showed up we had already been there over an hour, and only had maybe another hour of playtime left in us. They have a 3 year old boy called JJ who didn’t have floaties, but since the water was so shallow, he was fine splashing around with Mary and Emma having fun.  At one point, JJ lay down on the boogie board, and Mary pulled him over to the island, it was really cute.

And then, out of the blue, disaster struck. This is really hard to write about actually, I’m still feeling really shaken up, but I wanted to share because we feel so blessed. Mary had just started to pull JJ back to shore on the boogie board when all of a sudden a series of HUGE waves came rushing through, and I mean huge…the sea level where we were rose from about 1 foot to 3 feet in a matter of seconds. It swept Mary off her feet who was still wearing her floaties and holding tight to the cord of the boogie board.

Michael was holding Emma in the middle of the ocean and couldn’t put her down, and wading back to shore to put her down safely was like going in slow motion. Everything happened so quickly, but all of a sudden I am seeing Mary and JJ in the deepest part with the boogie board flipped over their heads, and them going under. I RAN. I was fully clothed, watch, glasses, shoes, everything, but I ran to the water and dived in, Baywatch style. I reached them in only a couple of strokes, but I couldn’t get my footing because my flip flops had come over and the floor was rocks and sharp coral. JJ was flailing and pushing down on Mary who was going under because the force of the wave had forced one of her floaties off.

I had both of the 3 year olds in a tight grasp, one in each arm, but we went under together one more time before we got up and I could stand up properly and get them above the water. Mary was whimpering and JJ was coughing and spluttering. I just held them there, not moving for a moment, and then a second later Michael was at my side so I handed Mary to him, and started walking back to shore with JJ. My legs felt like jelly, and as soon as I got to shore, I sat down on a rock with JJ on my lap to make sure he was ok.

His Mom was walking out of the ocean behind me…I thought she must have been trying to get JJ after me, but it turns out that the wave had also swept Hannah and Benjamin off. Daniel had been about to jump into the water when the wave came, and Hannah shouted out to him not to jump in and to stay on the side. Hannah and Benjamin can swim (although not strong swimmers) and they were able to communicate to each other that neither could reach the floor, and so they held onto each other and tried to tread water for as long as they could. That’s when JJ’s Mom reached in to help them get out.

Sitting on that rock holding the little boy and looking over at Michael holding Mary (and Michael with blood rushing down his leg because as he dove in to help us, he cut his leg on some coral) I just wanted to cry. I felt like sobbing, it had been such a close call and I kept seeing the image in my mind of the two little heads going under. It was heartbreaking, and yet at the same time, I knew that this would be a defining moment for how my kids reacted to water in the future, and I didn’t want them to be afraid of getting in the water again.

Getting back in the water was obviously off limits for the rest of the day, but we sat on the beach and ate our picnic in silence. It was a really sobering experience. On the way home, Michael asked me if I would have been prepared to do CPR on one of the kids. I was re-trained last year, and I remember doing mouth to mouth on the practice infant mannequin almost in tears because it was so emotional to me, so yes, I guess I would have been ready, but I hope I NEVER have to do it in real life.

We were afraid that Mary would be traumatized by this experience. We thought she may have nightmares (since I’m pretty sure I will), so we’ve tried talking to her about what happened. She just says, “Mommy, I drowned in the ocean with JJ”.

JJ’s Mom and I checked in on each other this afternoon. It’s just hard to know what to say. How to put such a close call into words, and it was just an accident, just a freaky thing…one minute paddling in shallow water giggling in innocence, and the next…..

It has been a hard day. We have a lot to be grateful for.


  1. Oh wow, Helen. What a scary experience. That must have been terrifying for everyone. I had a scare with Collin the other day at the swimming pool and it was horrible- I can only imagine what it was like for you seeing them struggling in the ocean. I’m so glad it turned out the way it did and that you were so blessed to be able to get everyone out unharmed.

  2. I am so grateful that everyone was saved. Hugs to you all!

  3. That is scary. I’m not a strong swimmer, so anytime my kids are in the water, I’m a little nervous, because I don’t know if I would be able to save them if something happened. I would definately try, I just don’t know if I would be able to.

  4. WOW, SCARY! I’m so glad everyone was okay.

  5. That is so scary Helen and I would be traumatized also. I’m glad it all turned out okay. That is the scary part about oceans, they are so unpredictable. It is a great teaching experience now though.

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