Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty: Fireman James D. Sanders, Jr.

Coast Guard Station Fort Macon Fireman James D. Sanders, Jr., stands outside the station, Friday, May 20, 2016.

Coast Guard Station Fort Macon Fireman James D. Sanders, Jr., stands outside the station, Friday, May 20, 2016.
Sanders witnessed a pier collapse in Beaufort while he was off duty May 11, 2016, and immediately took action to save the lives of several women who fell in the water.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Joshua L. Canup
and Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn

Five women, all senior citizens, gathered for a photo on a pier outside a waterfront restaurant in Beaufort, North Carolina, on the evening of May 11. Without warning, the pier collapsed, plunging them all into Taylor’s Creek eight feet below. Surrounded by oyster beds and wooden pilings, the women clung to the collapsed structure in water too deep for them to stand.

Among the five lifelong friends, Kay Cochron of Albemarle, North Carolina, was the greatest cause for concern. She suffered heart problems in the past, and the others began to panic as they treaded water and worked together to keep her afloat.

An off-duty Coast Guardsman, Fireman James D. Sanders, Jr., of Wedowee, Alabama, was eating dinner with his girlfriend at the same restaurant and witnessed the alarming event. Without hesitation, he sprang into action.

With just eight months in the U.S. Coast Guard at Station Fort Macon, North Carolina, Sanders reacted to the situation like a seasoned first responder.

“After the pier collapsed, for a moment we all went completely underwater,” said Cochron. “When we came up, a young gentleman climbed over the restaurant’s deck railing and jumped in.”

Amid the horrified onlookers and the dazed group of women in the water, Sanders remained a force of calm. Sanders yelled for onlookers to grab whatever floatation devices they could find and spoke with reassurance to the women.

“He swam to us and started reassuring us immediately that help would come and we would be fine,” said Cochron. “My friends were concerned for me and we were also tangled up in some fishing line.”

Keeping them huddled together, Sanders spotted a dock about 35 feet away.
“Luckily, the current wasn’t too bad at this particular time so I was able to keep them huddled around the woman with heart issues to keep her warm,” said Sanders.

Sanders’s request for floatation was answered when some pool noodles were located and passed down. Sanders retrieved the floating noodles and slid one under each woman. A good Samaritan arrived with a kayak to help. Sanders organized the transfer of the women, one by one, to safety on the nearby dock.

“He told my friends, ‘I will not leave her, y’all go on, I’ve got her,’” said Cochron. “He said, ‘I’ve got you.’ He kept us from panicking … really kept us calm; he and another guy, EMS I believe, got me under the arm and got me to the dock.”

By the time the Beaufort Fire Department arrived on scene, two women had already been escorted out of the water.

When Cochron finally made it to the pier, she was too shocked to turn around and thank him. Later on, however, she would voice her gratitude.

“He was a blessing to us,” said Cochron.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” said Sanders. “Normally, the current at that location is much stronger. This happened during an ideal tide. Luck was on everyone’s side.”

For the women, it was more than luck and circumstance – Sanders’ swift reaction and clear thinking to a dire situation enabled him to organize the efforts of other good Samaritans that evening.

“I did what any Coast Guardsman would have done,” said Sanders. “Helping people is what we do, on duty or off.”

Sanders hopes to become an aviation maintenance technician and eventually get qualified as a flight mechanic – a person responsible for operating a helicopter hoist in emergency situations.

Coast Guard Station Fort Macon Fireman James D. Sanders, Jr., prepares for a helicopter training excercise off Atlantic Beach, N.C., aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat out of Station Fort Macon, Friday, May 20, 2016.

Coast Guard Station Fort Macon Fireman James D. Sanders, Jr., prepares for a helicopter training excercise off Atlantic Beach, N.C., aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat out of Station Fort Macon, Friday, May 20, 2016.
An aspiring aviation maintenance technician, Sanders witnessed a pier collapse in Beaufort while he was off duty May 11, 2016, and immediately took action to save the lives of several women who fell in the water.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn

Do you know someone who embodies the Coast Guard Core Values of Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty? Please submit your nominations using the “Submit Ideas” link on the right.

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