Terror in the surf: Kodiak-based Coast Guardsman risks life to save family

A family tradition
The sun beat down in Perdido Key, Fla. It was May 13, 2010, and the wind kicked up the sand. It was a hot afternoon and five family members wanted to play in the surf during their family reunion.

On the surface, the surf seemed to be just right that day so the family threw a light blue raft into the water and hopped on. They were body surfing and boogie boarding, so the raft seemed ideal.

Shaun, Leah and Allison O’Grady, all siblings between the ages of 24 and 32, along with Matt and Ashley Morris, also siblings ages 24 and 26, jumped atop the raft, placed their backs together and pointed their feet off the side of the raft.

“We’ve been doing this family tradition for about three or four years,” said Shaun. “The raft I have is huge and to my family’s dismay, it takes up half of the car! We were just having fun, floating around in the ocean. It’s really a good time for all.”

All of them would get washed back to shore each time they took the raft into the surf, laughing while spinning around in the ocean.

“I’m usually the one in charge of the raft,” said Shaun, the oldest of his sisters. “Since I’m the tallest, I can take the raft out farther, about 40 or 50 yards out from the beach.”

However, as the five family members kept taking the raft into the surf, time and time again Leah said to the others they were getting farther and farther away from the shore. Plus, they would get knocked off the raft by waves but continued to enjoy their time in the surf.

When one of the waves knocked them off, Shaun and Ashley bumped their heads together. She decided to head to shore which was probably the best decision by Ashley since she is not a strong swimmer.

“I didn’t think anything of what Leah said,” said Shaun. “I just figured we’d have more time in the surf and everyone would get to ride longer. I told everyone to start kicking so we can try to make it back to the beach.”

But as the four family members began to kick, they didn’t get very far. It was like they were frozen in time and stuck in one place.

They had to continually kick to try to make it to shore. Little did they know that a strong rip current was brewing underneath their raft waiting to carry them out to sea.

The next thing they knew, a wave hit them.

In the Surf
“We were all knocked off the raft and as soon as I got above the water, I didn’t see the raft,” said Shaun. “I didn’t see my cousin Matt, but thankfully I did see my two sisters.”

Once Shaun and his sisters made it back to the surface, a big flurry of waves began to pummel them, one right after another.

“Those waves were big the whole time,” said Shaun. “Every time we would get hit by a wave, we’d come to the surface, catch a breath and then another wave would hit us. We had floated out pretty far too, maybe 75 to 100 yards.”

Shaun didn’t realize how serious the situation was until he looked at his sister Leah and she had a look of concern on her face.

“She’s always been a very confident and stable person,” said Shaun. “When I saw that look of panic in her face and it grew worse as the seconds went away, I started to get worried too.”

As Shaun could feel the pull of the undertow upon him, he told his sisters to get on their backs to try and conserve energy. Plus it seemed to be the easiest way to get in strokes against the strong waves.

As the three siblings were trying to swim toward the beach and keep from getting pushed under by the waves, they kept looking for their cousin Matt.

Rescue on the way
Even though Matt was also knocked off the raft, he was able to stay with it…somehow.

“It seemed like after I got back on it, 10 minutes had gone by,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Matt Morris, aviation maintenance technician with Air Station Kodiak. “As I searched for them, I kept getting knocked off but managed to stay with the raft. Finally, I spotted them between waves about 50 yards further out than I was.”

Matt’s cousins were waving frantically and he realized he had to help as they were getting pulled out by the rip tide. If he didn’t help the outcome could be fatal.

“I began to paddle out and it took me about five minutes,” said Matt. “As soon as I got to them, they grabbed a hold of the raft. My one cousin, Leah, was panicking while the other had to shed some clothes just so she could tread water better.”

Matt stayed level-headed and calm. He told them, they weren’t out of this yet and they all needed to kick and head toward shore. His Coast Guard training kicked in and he calmed them down. The four family members joined forces and paddled the raft parallel to the shore with the current.

“As we got closer to the shore, we entered deep water again between the sand bar and shore getting pounded by waves and struggling to keep a hold of the raft while trying to keep everyone together,” said Matt. “Eventually we made it to shore with over a half hours worth of struggle to get back to land.”

Exhausted and safe on the beach, it hit them how bad the situation was and how fatal it could have been.

“I kept thinking as I was out there with my sisters, this is not how I’m going to die,” said Shaun. “This is not how I’m going to go.”

The family later learned the beach had a double red flag rip tide warning. However, the condominium they were staying in did not have any flags along the beach and they were not watching the news that day to hear the warnings.

“We later learned when watching the news that evening that a 22-year-old male had drowned the same day just further down the beach” said Shaun. “That put it into perspective how lucky we were.”

Shaun credits his cousin Matt with his and his sister’s survival in the surf that hot and windy May afternoon.

“He definitely saved us,” said Shaun. “I don’t even know how he got the raft. He realized how important it was to get the raft and if he didn’t have it, there’s no way he would have rescued us.”

Matt has been enlisted in the Coast Guard for three years and has been in aviation for two. He is a loadmaster aboard the HC-130 Hercules aircraft and performs training flights on a regular basis. Matt has trained for in-air emergency situations and the emergency situation in the surf was no different.

“I think my training with the aircraft helped me keep my head together,” said Matt. “I realized the task at hand and also had to keep everyone else calm so we could work together to achieve the desired outcome.”

The O’Grady siblings and Matt’s sister are alive today because of the actions of their cousin Matt.

“It gave my sisters more comfort knowing he works for the Coast Guard,” said Shaun. “We are all alive today because of him. We’re so thankful.”

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