Falmouth lifeguard Kelly O’Neil saved a life on July 7, and this past Monday, the Falmouth Board of Selectmen recognized her and other members of the beach department for it.
This week, Ms. O’Neil recalled details of the save.
It was late in the afternoon on a Sunday. “We pack up at 4:45,” Ms. O’Neil said, so her shift was drawing to a close.
Ms. O’Neill has been a lifeguard for four summers, but a swimmer since she could walk.
She saw a man out in the water doing the backstroke. Even from a distance, Ms. O’Neil, who teaches swim lessons in addition to her lifeguard duties, thought his stroke seemed off. His arms were not making full 180-degree motions as they should have been for that stroke.
She decided to take the rescue board out to see if he was all right.
“Older swimmers get fatigued,” she said. It was high tide, and he was pretty far out from shore.
She started paddling out toward him. It was then that he really began struggling, she said.
“I was screaming, ‘Sir, sir’...He just started sinking,” she said.
Ms. O’Neil sprang into action, blowing three times on her whistle to notify surrounding lifeguards of the emergency.
The only other lifeguard at the stands was a rookie, with a week and a half on the job, Ms. O’Neil said. No other lifeguards were in sight.
“I was like, I have no choice but to swim this guy in,” she said.
This was not Ms. O’Neil’s first save. Ms. O’Neil rescued what she called an “active drowner” her first summer on the job. The person was fine immediately after being rescued. She remembers people clapping and getting free ice cream.
This time was different.
By the time she reached the man, he was blue. She could not feel a pulse.
“I just was completely terrified in the moment,” she recalled.
A woman swimming nearby had heard Ms. O’Neil blow her whistle three times—a universal signal for “emergency.” She swam over and offered to help. Ms. O’Neil gave the woman her rescue board, so she could grab the man and swim him in to shore.
Adrenaline kicked in, and Ms. O’Neil strained every muscle pulling the man to shore safely.
By the time she got close, a crowd had gathered. Onlookers helped her safely lift the man onto her rescue board, now beached in the sand, half in, half out of the water.
The rookie lifeguard, Owen Venturelli, kept watch over the beach and alerted emergency services. Another lifeguard, Robert Libertini, helped patrol the beach as well.
A nurse practitioner and a doctor from a nearby club took turns doing chest compressions on the man. They attached an auto defibrillator to the man but it advised against shocking him, suggesting it was not a heart condition that had led to the incident.
Falmouth Fire Rescue personnel arrived in minutes. Ms. O’Neil helped them move the man from the rescue board to a gurney and gave him oxygen.
“All of a sudden you just saw a tiny breath come out,” she said. His pulse began to gain strength and his eyes were responsive, she said.
Ms. O’Neil recalled collapsing onto the beach after emergency services took him away. She pulled a muscle in her back during the rescue, only noticing that once the adrenaline wore off. She said she has since made a fast and full recovery.
Ms. O’Neil called the hospital a few hours later for an update on the man’s condition. That was the last time she heard of him until about two weeks after the incident.
James D. Condon and his wife, Carolyn Condon, showed up during her shift on Chapoquoit Beach. Ms. O’Neil did not recognize Mr. Condon. The rescue had happened so fast.
They were there to thank her.
On Monday night, the Falmouth Board of Selectmen recognized Ms. O’Neil, beach department staff, and other Falmouth lifeguards. She spoke about the rescue along with Mr. Condon and Beach Superintendent Bruce Mogardo.
Mr. Condon praised everyone who arrived on the scene to help.
“Everybody did everything right, but the key thing was [Ms. O’Neil] had to do it first,” he said.
Megan English Braga, chairwoman of the board of selectmen, thanked the lifeguards for their dedication.
“We don’t always see things that rise to this level, but every day I know that you’re out there and really being preventative… looking for those things that could become more dangerous. So thank you so much,” she said.
Ms. O’Neil is a rising sophomore at Elon University in North Carolina. She said she plans to return to Falmouth next year for her fifth summer watching the waves.