LONG BEACH, Wash. (AP) — As Charles Ostrander flailed in the turbulent waves of the Pacific, it was another 12-year-old who put her life on the line to save him — the first in a series of responders who eventually pulled Ostrander back from the brink of death.
Nicole Kissel's daring actions provided rescue crews with what turned out to be a crucial extension of time. Ostrander, who goes by his nickname Dale, ended up spending several minutes lost in the water, was found lifeless in the surf but has since been revived in a remarkable recovery that defied even the expectations of his parents.
On Wednesday, he was out of the ICU and starting to talk with his family.
After hearing Dale's call for help Friday, Nicole immediately turned her boogie board toward deeper waters despite the objections of her father, who shouted over the crashing waves about the dangerous conditions. Nicole managed to reach Dale, who was struggling to stay afloat, and helped him onto the three-foot board. Together, the two youths struggled against the rip current that had turned an average day at a popular beach into chaos.
"When we were on that board, I kind of shouted out to myself: 'We're going to die. I can't die like this,'" Nicole recalled.
Dale, meanwhile, had offered words of assurance: "Keep paddling. We're almost there."
A rogue wave slammed into the pair, knocking them off the board. Nicole managed to get back up, but Dale disappeared back into the surf.
By the time rescuers had reached the beach, fellow members of the church group Dale had been traveling with were huddled in tears and prayer while some stood on trucks trying to get a vantage point to spot him.
Eddie Mendez, a volunteer water rescuer, was working his day job at a construction site when the emergency call came in. The 34-year-old immediately drove over to the beach and changed into a wet suit while his colleague launched two jet skis.
Mendez said he saw a shadow moving under the breaking water offshore, so he and a diver rushed over. They scanned the area for a few minutes before Mendez spotted the shadow again. They found the boy floating about two feet below the surface of the water.
"He was white-pale and face down," Mendez said.
As they pulled the boy on board, Mendez realized he was rescuing a child — about the age of his own daughter.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is like my own child,'" Mendez said.
Mendez drove the boy to the beach, where emergency responders began trying to revive him. There was no sign of life but they kept performing CPR as they transported him. Finally, after Dale reached a nearby hospital, his pulse returned.
Then Dale was flown from the southwest Washington coast to OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, Ore. His parents were still steeling themselves for the worst.
"I expected to say our goodbyes and so did my wife, and we were just prepared for that," said Chad Ostrander, who was at the family's home in Spanaway, Wash., when it happened. But on Sunday night, as he was eased off sedatives, Dale opened his eyes.
"At that moment, that was the first glimmer of any hope," his father said. "It didn't mean he was going to make it. It just meant that there was hope."
It's unclear whether he'll fully recover, but his parents have hope.
"There's been several miracles just in the circumstances of finding him, the fact that he's not dead, the fact that he can move, the fact that he can speak," Chad Ostrander said. "Unbelievable."
Generally, the chances of surviving a near-drowning increase when a person is young, the water is cold and the time spent underwater is short. Dr. Mark Morocco, an emergency room doctor at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said medical literature cites at least one case in which a person survived after being submerged for about an hour.
Morocco said the fact that Dale was wearing long sleeves probably helped him.
It is not clear how long the boy was actually underwater. Mendez said about 15 minutes elapsed between the time rescuers were dispatched and the time Dale was pulled from the ocean.
Morocco, who was not involved in Dale's care, said swift treatment was key. He credited rescuers for continuing resuscitation efforts even though the boy lacked a pulse and reflexes.
"When this kid came out of the surf, he looked dead," he said. "But you have to ignore the fact that he looks dead" and give CPR.
Dale starting talking on Monday. When his parents encouraged him to cough to clear his throat, he replied, "I don't have to."
Doctors have cautioned his parents that even if Dale survives, he could have permanent brain damage.
The physicians "were very clear that he had been under for too long, had been without oxygen for too long," Kirsten Ostrander said. "We trust (God) no matter what."
Dale will need speech and physical therapy, and can't get out of his hospital bed yet, his father said.
"Things are going along better than anyone expected so at this point we're very happy," he said.
"Honestly, all of the doctors' prospects are very negative. They're very honest and blunt. But they said every once in a while there's a miracle, and we don't want to give up on that," Ostrander said.
Dale has uttered a few more words. Ostrander said that when he told him he couldn't get out of bed, "He reared up and said, 'Yes, I can.'"
Two more words came Wednesday, when Nicole Kissel visited him.
She said he seemed to have trouble focusing his eyes for most of the 15-minute reunion. But as she left, he made eye contact for the first time and said, "Thank you."
Barnard reported from Grants Pass, Ore. Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Portland, Ore., and Alicia Chang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.