High Rock rescue: Boaters resuscitate girl after freak accident
By Steve Huffman
The last thing Kaylee Thompson remembers ó well, the last thing before she thought her young life was about to end ó was standing in the inner tube in which she was riding and taking a mighty leap.
Kaylee, 10, is a resident of Raymond, Miss., and this week is staying with family members at the home of her great-uncle, Tommy Lunsford, in Fisherman’s Cove in eastern Rowan County. It’s not far from Tamarac Marina.
Kaylee was riding in an inner tube on High Rock Lake shortly after noon Sunday. She was being pulled by a jet ski operated by her cousin, 19-year-old Brittany Tucker.
At the precise moment that Kaylee jumped, the inner tube hit a huge wake, throwing the girl back down with abandon. She sank into the bottom of the inner tube, her right leg twisted behind her back, her face staring down into dark water.
Kaylee tried to pull herself free, but ó wedged somehow between the canvas and hard rubber of the inner tube ó she could not.
Then everything went black.
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Mike Marion and Shane Holleman, longtime buddies from Asheboro, were fishing Sunday when they saw what happened to Kaylee.
They noticed first that Kaylee ó whom they’d never met ó seemed to be having a good time, yelling and laughing.
Suddenly, she disappeared.
Marion and Holleman watched for a few more seconds before one commented to the other, “I don’t see the little girl anymore.”
They noticed that Kaylee’s cousin, the operator of the jet ski, didn’t realize what was going on behind her and continued to cruise along at a rapid clip. Holleman pulled the fishing boat to a stop in front of the jet ski and both men waved their arms to catch the driver’s attention.
The jet ski stopped and the search for Kaylee began. The girl who moments before was having the time of her life was nowhere to be found.
Initially, everyone thought she’d fallen into the water. But she was wearing a life preserver and there was no sign of her bobbing on the surface.
Holleman finally pulled the inner tube to the boat and attempted to hoist it from the water. Water poured out, but Holleman realized it was too heavy for the girl not to be inside.
She was, trapped face down in the water in the bottom of the inner tube. It was so big it appeared to have almost swallowed the child.
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Marion and Holleman took a pair of scissors to deflate the inner tube and finally pulled the girl free. When they lifted her into their boat, what they saw terrified them.
“She wasn’t breathing,” Marion said. “Her face was blue and her lips were purple.”
Holleman said Kaylee’s eyes had rolled back into her head and she had a look of death about her. She had no pulse or heartbeat.
Marion knew time was of the essence. He’d taken a CPR class while in high school (“And I graduated in 1990,” he said Monday, managing to laugh as he recalled how everything about the rescue fell perfectly into place) and didn’t know if he’d remember what he’d been taught.
But he and Holleman went quickly to work, Marion performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while his fishing companion performed chest compressions.
“It was a team effort,” Marion said.
“We didn’t even say anything to one another,” Holleman said. “We just went to work.”
They estimated they continued CPR for close to two minutes before Kaylee finally coughed and spit up a fair amount of water and undigested potato chips. Marion and Holleman hollered to Kaylee’s cousin, telling her to go call for help.
While Marion and Holleman were taking Kaylee back to shore, she quit breathing again and they had to stop to perform CPR a second time. She was breathing, but still far from coherent when they got her to land.
“We kept working with her, kept talking to her until the EMTs got there,” Marion said. “I had her on her side in my lap.”
He had a hard time fighting back tears Monday as he recalled how serious the situation might have been.
“All I could think of was, if we weren’t lucky enough to have been out there, they may have pulled her back to shore dead,” Marion said.
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That’s a very real possibility, said Jeremy Harrill, a law-enforcement officer with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the officer who investigated Sunday’s near-drowning.
“There was no alcohol involved, it was just a freak accident,” Harrill said. “She’s very lucky to be alive.”
Kaylee spent Sunday night in Rowan Regional Medical Center, but that was more of a precautionary measure than anything.
“She’s a very lucky little girl,” Harrill said. “This could easily have turned out a lot worse.”
Helplessly, from shore, members of Kaylee’s family had watched the accident and rescue efforts. Kaylee traveled to North Carolina with her mother, Christy Thompson, as well as assorted aunts and uncles.
They saw Kaylee fall into the inner tube and disappear, and watched as Marion and Holleman went to work.
“These guys are heroes to us now,” said Tommy Lunsford, Kaylee’s great-uncle and the owner of the house where the family is staying.
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On Monday afternoon, Marion and Holleman drove from Asheboro to see Kaylee again. They didn’t have any choice, they said.
“I couldn’t get that picture of that little girl so near death out of my mind,” Marion said. “I had to see her again.”
Marion and Holleman brought a teddy bear and a “Get well” balloon with them for Kaylee. Christy Tucker gave both men big hugs and thanked them for saving her little girl.
“I just wanted to tell them, ‘Thank you,’ ” she said, her eyes welling with tears.
Kaylee, a rising fifth-grader, struck a fast bond with the men who rescued her. Marion, who performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the girl, kidded with her, telling her that when she returned to Mississippi, she needed to tell her friends she’d been kissed by “the ugliest man in North Carolina.”
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Marion and Holleman take a sort of “aw shucks” attitude toward their role in the event, saying they only did what anyone in a similar situation would have done.
The pair fish on High Rock Lake frequently. Marion, 36, drives a truck for Pugh Lubricants. Holleman, 40, works for Automatic Vending Services.
Marion is married with two children, ages 12 and 2. He said he owns an inner tube similar to the one involved in Sunday’s incident. Marion said he’s pulled his oldest daughter in the inner tube on numerous occasions, never realizing its potential danger.
He said the first thing he did when he got home Sunday was take a knife and cut a big chunk out of the inner tube, then toss it all in the garbage.
“There’s no way I’d ever pull her in it again,” Marion said of his daughter.
He and Holleman agree there was a greater power that played a role in Sunday’s rescue.
“I thank the good Lord we were there at the right place at the right time,” Marion said.