Northern Michigan University student Esther Byington received a belated lifesaving medal earlier this semester for her role in rescuing two women in distress after riding a personal watercraft in rough waters during high winds. The incident happened last summer, as Byington was working her second season with the Muskegon County Marine Services Crew.
She was out on the water with her supervisor, another second-year worker and six first-day workers to show them the basics of working in the marine unit.
“We make sure that everybody is following the safety laws, everyone is wearing their life jackets, all that kind of stuff,” said Byington, a criminal justice major. “On the flipside of it, if there is a water emergency, say someone is drowning or a boat is taking on water, it's also our job to respond to that and render aid in whatever way the situation calls for. [This day] was just one of those kinds of, ‘Hey, let's just go and check it out. We'll show you the lake, we'll show you the boats and how everything works.'”
While they were out on Muskegon Lake, with sustained winds of 20-30 miles per hour, Byington and the rest of the crew got a call for a vessel in distress. A boat had lost its engine. Once they got to the location, the situation had already been resolved, so they decided to continue riding around the lake.
“We turned around and my supervisor, who was driving the boat, just so happened to see a jet ski just floating in the water,” Byington said. “It looked odd, so we got a bit closer and realized that someone was screaming for help and just barely holding someone out of the water. We rushed over and grabbed the woman being held out of the water and up onto our boat using the dive doors our boat has.”
Most police boats come equipped with dive doors located on the sides, which open outward and lay flat with the water. Byington and the team of eight other people folded the door down and pulled the woman out of the water. She had no pulse and wasn't breathing.
“Immediately, everyone went into action,” Byington said. “We started CPR, cycling through compressions. It's a tiring thing, so multiple people would switch during it. It was also very wavy and windy, with three-foot waves. So while we were doing that. we were holding onto each other to keep us from falling off the boat, and holding onto the woman to keep her from falling off as well.”
During the process of resuscitation, the other woman, who was still on the jet ski, had flipped over and began screaming for help in the water. She didn't have any strength left after holding the other person out of the water, and couldn't swim with the waves. So Byington ran to the other side of the boat and threw a life ring at her. Once she got her into the life ring, Byington and three others pulled the woman out of the water and made sure she was okay before making it back to shore, where emergency responders were waiting.
For everyone's efforts that day, they were all awarded with the lifesaving medal—awarded for rescuing any person from drowning, shipwreck or other perils in the water—from the Muskegon County Sheriff's Department.
“I really couldn't have done it without everybody being there,” Byington said. “It was not just me by any means at all. I don't think we could have done it if there were one, two or even three people. It was a complete coincidence that we just happened to stumble upon it and have the number of people on our boat that we did. The universe was looking out for us that day.”