TOPSAIL BEACH — Mike Howard still gets emotional over his heroic act on July 4.
The longtime Rose Hill native had a bit of Paul Revere run through his veins when he helped rescue two swimmers on a stretch of beach between Topsail Beach and Surf City.
On that day a vicious riptide was swiftly sweeping swimmers out to sea.
Howard was in the water knee deep when he heard faint cries of “help, help, help me.”
He responded by running, wading and then running parallel to the shore in an attempt to pick up a flotation device for his ride into the twisting ocean currents.
“I kept screaming, ‘boogie boards, give me boogie boards,’” Howard said.
Howard’s wife Kay slipped to the sand to pray.
Howard had gone slightly rogue, but the situation called for it.
It was the last place he thought he would be after just returning from a vacation the day previously. But Kay’s children called and asked if the couple would go for a beach day.
Howard eventually reached the two swimmers, Lauren Jacquot, 21, and her boyfriend, Monte James, 27.
Howard cradled the pair with boogie boards and, exhausted, began trudging to the shore.
Before he could get there, Matthew Henderson, a Marine from Texas stationed in Jacksonville, grabbed James.
“He was in shock with deep laborious breathing and quick shallow exhales,” Henderson said.
“He was hyperventilating and out of it,” said Howard. “When Matthew grabbed him, he was dead weight.”
Henderson lugged James to paramedics and he was taken to a hospital. He recovered fully.
Jacquot wasn’t as bad. She was dazed, confused and scared, but still able to walk away without major health concerns.
“It was a miracle,” she said. “Something I can never forget or repay.”
Howard said he only responded because he felt a need to take action.
“I’m not a hero,” he said. “The good Lord gave me the wisdom to think and I’m not even sure why I kept screaming for boogie boards. I was of the mind-set the Lord had my back.”
Henderson, who has been in the Marines for two years, said he was proud of both his effort and those who wielded powerful helping hands, especially Howard.
“I felt good to know I could follow through on all the training I’ve had both as a Marine and as a human,” he said. “I thought I could do it, but you never really know until you’re tested.”
Howard aced his emergency readiness exam.
“Thank God for boogie boards because two to five seconds later and they both would have been fatalities. Gone,” he said. “That’s one of the worst rip currents I’ve ever seen.
“I hate to keep saying this, but God directs our steps. It wasn’t Monte or Lauren’s time to go, and I was put there ... to save them.”
Howard, Henderson and Jacquot were reunited with James and the foursome felt connected after being strangers on the beach on a holiday.
“Lauren said we would forever be in their lives,” Howard said. “All because I was placed there.
“Hey, I’m 6-foot-4 and in decent physical shape. But I give God all the credit. Maybe you don’t want to hear that, though. It was supposed to be this way.”
Drowning deaths on rise everywhere
Some others locally and otherwise are not as fortunate.
According to the Center for Disease Control, there are an estimated 320,000 worldwide drownings annually. In the U.S., about 4,000 people — or 10 per day — die per year from drowning.
North Carolina has the seventh highest rate among all states.
Further, most organizations that report drownings say they are universally under-reported.
The CDC also confirms a few of Howard’s post-rescue theories.
Drownings happen fast and are silent. It can happen in as little as 20 to 60 seconds.
It doesn’t look like what we thought it might.
Additionally, no one is drown-proof. No matter how well they swim or how athletically gifted, a fatality is waiting in hiding.