Several Sequim residents came together on the Fourth of July to save someone in distress, pulling a drowning man out of the water in Dungeness Bay and racing him to awaiting medics at John Wayne Marina, saving his life in the process.
John Robert Labbe said he was out crabbing with his family for the holiday when his group heard a call for help from a smaller nearby vessel.
A fisherman with more than 20 years of experience, Labbe said, “The first thing I saw was a large man hanging off the side of this boat.”
Labbe said at first he thought the man fell out of the boat, but upon making contact he was told by that vessel’s occupants — Sue Cram and Dick Neil — that they had found him floating face-down in the water without a life jacket. The couple said the couldn’t get him into Neil’s boat, but could only manage to keep him where he was, where he could at least breathe.
“I had been getting our second crab pot of the day ready when Sue heard someone calling for help,” Neil said. “And when I started listening I heard a clear, ‘Help me, help me, help me.’”
It took Neil and Cram several minutes to find the man, who was holding onto a floating seat cushion. Neil maneuvered his small boat carefully to safely approach the man, but said his engine’s propeller got fouled in a line drifting up from what eventually turned out to be the man’s capsized and sunken boat.
Cram said she was able to reach out a boat hook to the man while they were approaching, who abandoned his floating cushion to try and swim to them.
“His face went under the water several times and he wasn’t swimming well,” Neil said. “I thought we were going to lose him.”
The man was able to reach the boat and wrap his arms around a downrigger mount on the side, but it quickly became clear that he was too heavy to get him into their boat on their own.
As soon as Labbe arrived and positioned his boat, his father-in-law and friend jumped over to Neil’s vessel to help haul the man, later was identified only as “Ki,” into their boat.
Neil’s propeller was still caught in the line and slower than Labbe’s, so using his to get Ki to safety was the only choice.
Labbe contacted the Coast Guard via radio and headed to John Wayne Marina, saying he “had to have been pushing 40 miles per hour” to get the man to medics waiting for him at the dock.
“We were scared he wasn’t going to make it,” Labbe said. “He was unresponsive and so hypothermic … his face and arms and legs were blue, and the only warmth he had left was a little bit in his chest and back.”
Labbe said that his father-in-law started gathering every jacket on the boat to try and keep Ki warm, including jackets provided by Neil and Cram. That effort, they surmised, helped save Ki’s life; he was starting to become more responsive as he was being loaded into the waiting ambulance at the marina, they said
“The medics said if we’d been even 10 minutes slower, he probably would not have survived,” Labbe said.
Dan Orr, assistant chief with Fire District 3, estimated the man had been in the water for about 45 minutes.
Labbe and his family returned to the area where they’d found Ki to check on Cram and Neil. The couple freed themselves from the tangled line and had resumed their own crabbing — and in the process found Ki’s sunken boat. Labbe described it as a “8- or 10-foot aluminum dinghy” with short side walls — not a well-suited boat for those waters, he said.
Labbe and Neil both theorized that Ki accidentally capsized the dinghy while leaning over the side to retrieve a crab pot.
Ki was treated at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles and released several hours later. Coincidentally, Labbe’s sister Christy is a nurse at OMC and was on duty in the emergency room when Ki was brought in, and confirmed to her brother that he had survived and was released to someone who came to pick him up.
“On our way out there, we had been thinking about turning around and heading back to Sequim Bay with how rough the winds were on our way out,” Neil said.
“I am so, so glad we didn’t.”