They were going to drown.
No one moved.
The crowd just stood there, watching a strong rip current wear out three struggling swimmers.
“They were treading water, but it was rough,” said former U.S. Marine Reserve Capt. Abigail R. Zuehlke. “There wasn’t any rescue team in sight and the crowd of onlookers was steadily growing.”
When Abigail arrived with her family and friends at Hunting Island State Park, S.C., they had no idea what was occurring. This was an impromptu stop after a visit to a nearby lighthouse and they were all in shirts and shorts.
Abigail’s husband, U.S. Marine Reserve Capt. Arthur A. Zuehlke, also noticed the mood was tense. So he investigated.
“When we asked [the crowd] what was going on, they pointed out to [the distressed swimmers] and said that they had been swimming for a long time,” Arthur said. “I saw three heads bobbing up and down about 125 meters off.”
As a 2003 Citadel graduate, a former lifeguard and a confident swimmer, Abigail knew that she had to save these swimmers.
At first, Arthur was worried for her safety.
“Right away I was like, ‘no,’” he said. “How am I going to explain to her family, my family and our kids that she died? But she was determined. I wasn’t going to prevent her from saving people.”
Tim Glas, a family friend of the Zuehlkes was alongside Abigail when she prepared to help the swimmers.
“She was carrying her infant daughter Kara in a Baby Bjorn,” he said.
Glas pointed out that Abigail unstrapped the baby carrier from herself and handed her daughter to Arthur. She gave Arthur a kiss, and then headed toward the water.
No one wanted Abigail to go into the water by herself.
“I’ve been out in that water, I been in that rip current and it can be pretty treacherous,” Glas said. “I wasn’t going to let her go out there by herself.”
Glas took off his sandals and emptied his pockets. Then he began to trail Abigail.
“I followed behind her by about 50 yards,” he said. “I’m 6’ 2” so I can wade a distance out. Abigail did the swimming that day. As we were going out into the water she said she had been a lifeguard in high school. I felt at ease.”
Abigail arrived first to Brandon Santiago, about 300 feet from shore. She grabbed him under his arms and started to tow him back to dry land.
“He was near panic,” Glas said. “He was vomiting all over her shoulder. She prayed with him. Abigail showed great presence of mind in calming this individual who was significantly bigger than she was, and in fairly deep water.”
When she was close enough to shore she passed Brandon back to Glas.
“When she got back to the beach there was spontaneous applause for her,” Glas said. “It was as clear to me, as it was to [the crowd], she was the best candidate to do the job.”
“Brandon was in rough shape,” Abigail said. He had swallowed some water from trying to keep afloat.
Glas pointed out that after Abigail safely delivered Brandon, she yelled back to the beach to see where the other swimmer was. Her husband then guided her toward the second swimmer.
Abigail headed out to rescue another swimmer, Daniel Santiago, Brandon’s brother.
Last of the three swimmers, Joe Chestner, was able to swim back to shore with no assistance, while the other two were being brought in.
“Anyone could’ve been caught in that situation,” Abigail said. “The swimmers were just on a nasty stretch of beach. The ocean was rough and they did nothing wrong.”
With all three swimmers safe ashore, Abigail, and her family and friends left the area promptly. She said she didn’t want to make a spectacle of the incident.
“She wanted to leave very quickly,” Glas said. “She is very humble so she wanted to tone down her part.”
Abigail later found out that Daniel was a fellow Marine who had graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., that same morning.
For her actions, Capt. Abigail Zuehlke was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for heroism while off duty on July 8, 2011. She was the first female to be inducted into by her Alma Matter’s Arland D. Williams Society – an organization which honors alumni who perform such actions outside of their professional capacity.
She was also one of 21 individuals to subsequently receive the Carnegie Medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission – an honor given to those who risk their lives to save others.
“We are all very proud of her,” Arthur said. “I’m going to make sure our kids know her story.”
With her Reserve Marine Corps career behind her, Abigail is taking prerequisite classes toward her nursing degree.
Abigail remains a member of the Marine Corps Individual Ready Reserve. A component composed primarily of former active component or Reserve Marines who have not completed their eight year contractual military service obligation, or have completed their obligation and remain in a ready status voluntarily to be called by the Corps or their Nation to serve.
Article by Sgt. Ray Lewis, USMC