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Local teen hailed as hero after river rescue in Cooleemee

By Nathan Hardin
nhardin@salisburypost.comCOOLEEMEE ó Eli Wittum completed his lifeguard training just two months ago, and it didn’t take long for that training to be put into practice in a potential life-or-death situation.
On May 30, Wittum rescued a 15 year-old-boy from the swollen South Yadkin River at the RiverPark at Cooleemee Falls.
Wittum had been swimming with a friend about 5 feet from shore when he heard screams coming from upstream. The undertow pulled the boy, Marlo Porfirio Ramos, more than 100 yards before Wittum rushed out into the middle of the river to help him.
When Wittum reached the teen, Ramos frantically grasped him around the neck. After Wittum freed himself, Ramos sank under the water and didn’t surface for more than 10 seconds.
“I dove about two feet under water before I found him and pulled him back to the surface,” Wittum said.
The South Yadkin was high due to torrential downpours over the previous few days. Normally, the river is easy to cross.
“It looked like ocean waves and the water was very dark and muddy,” Wittum’s mother, Cyndi Allison Wittum, said.
Cooleemee Town Police Chief Bobby West said, “Because it had rained so much so fast, the water was flowing over the overflow.”
After drifting another 200 yards downstream, Wittum, a 16-year old Eagle Scout, clung with his right hand to a fallen tree that stretched towards the middle of the river and used his left hand to support the exhausted boy.
Three Hispanic fisherman helped pull Ramos from the water first and Wittum immediately after.
“He was going in and out of consciousness,” Wittum said of Ramos.
After checking Ramos’ breathing and pulse, Wittum borrowed a cell phone from one of the fishermen and dialed 911.
The only words Wittum could make out from Ramos through the mixture of excitement, Spanish and the battle for consciousness were, “Thank you.”
Wittum later explained he takes Latin at West Rowan High School and could only understand a small bit of Spanish.
The “Bullhole,” as many local residents call the spot on the South Yadkin where the RiverPark is located, is just off Erwin Temple Church Road. The Wittums were having a cookout at an overlook just above the river when they heard the commotion.
“Eli went down the river and they can’t find him,” Evelyn Looney, Wittum’s grandmother told her daughter, Cyndi Wittum.
It wasn’t long after Cyndi Wittum rushed down to the shore that her son strolled back up the bank.
“I immediately hugged him,” she said.
Rowan EMS transported Ramos to Rowan Regional Medical Center with minor injuries. He was discharged the next day.
Wittum, who became one of the county’s youngest Eagle Scouts at 14, is being considered for several medals and awards.
The highest is the Honor Medal. It’s specifically for Scouts who put themselves at “great personal risk,” while attempting to save someone’s life.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that he saved a person’s life,” said Wittum’s Scoutmaster, Jim Redmond of Troop 320. “He’s one of the best and most dedicated Scouts in the area.”
Wittum, a sophomore at West Rowan High School, is receiving support for the award from guidance counselor Susan Beard and officers at the Cooleemee Police Department.
One officer at the Police Department, who was an Eagle Scout, is helping Wittum by filling out a nomination form for a medal for bravery from the Scouts.
Wittum will begin his first lifeguarding job Friday at the J.F. Hurley Family YMCA.


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