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Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Erik Watson, a Wenonah, N.J., native, was awarded the Coast Guard Meritorious Service Medal on Wednesday, April 11, for his actions in saving two elderly swimmers from drowning on June 14, 2007.
He is the son of Hal and Kat Watson of Sunset Beach.
A call for help
Erik Watson, the executive petty officer at Coast Guard Station Hatteras, was returning to the station from lunch when he heard a report over his rescue radio that several people without life jackets were caught in a rip current and were being pulled out to sea near the Frisco Pier in Hatteras.
Watson immediately turned his vehicle around and headed to the scene. Upon arriving, he saw two elderly victims in the water about 300 to 400 yards off the beach.
“My first thought when I arrived on scene was that they were not going to make it. They had been in the rip [current] for over 30 minutes,” Watson said.
“I felt that I had to act and do what I could until the rescue crews from the Coast Guard and Hatteras Island Rescue Squad could arrive.”
Watson, a volunteer with the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad, quickly donned the water rescue gear he always keeps with him, knowing rescuers onboard a 25-foot Coast Guard rescue boat and a Hatteras Island Rescue Jet Ski were on their way. He plunged into the pounding 4- to 6-foot waves and began making his way out to the distressed swimmers.
After swimming out to the two people in the water Watson began talking with the couple to calm them down and keep them from panicking.
“I talked to them, assuring them that all we were doing was taking a nice swim. I also asked them about their vacation and about their hometown in Ohio,” Watson said. “I think I showed them that they were going to survive and gave them a little hope.
“In many rip current situations people panic and over-exert themselves then drown. The waves just kept coming and pushing us under. We all said a prayer, and after a few minutes we could see the Jet Ski,” Watson said.
The Jet Ski, piloted by Jason Buckner, fought through the breaking surf and arrived at Watson’s location.
Watson assisted the female victim onto the backboard attached to the Jet Ski and told Buckner to take her back to the beach first. He stayed with the male victim until Buckner returned.
A short time later, Buckner returned and took Watson and the gentleman back to shore.
Keeping the tradition alive
After receiving the award for the rescue, Watson was quick to cite the bravery and heroism of his predecessors in both the Coast Guard and the U.S. Life Saving Service, shown while performing historic rescues along the same stretch of North Carolina beach that Watson currently patrols.
“I am completely humbled and honored. There have been so many true heroes throughout the U.S. Life Saving Service and Coast Guard’s history, especially on the Outer Banks of North Carolina,” Watson said. “To have my name mentioned along with the Midgetts, O’Neals, and Scarboroughs is a true honor for me.”
Watson said he shares his award with fellow Coasties on the Outer Banks, especially his crew at Motor Lifeboat Station Hatteras Inlet, and the volunteers of Hatteras Island Rescue Squad.
“I have been blessed in my career to learn from the very best,” he said, listing Master Chief Petty Officer Tom McAdams (Ret.), Chief Warrant Officer Scott Clendenin (Ret.), Senior Chief Petty Officer Kirk McKay, Chief Warrant Officer Kary Moss, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Mahoney, Petty Officer 1st Class Jake Albinio (Ret.), and others.
“So many people have molded my character and influenced what kind of Coastie and surfman I am. They are the true heroes in my book,” Watson said.
Capt. June Ryan, commanding officer of Coast Guard Sector North Carolina, praised Watson for his heroic actions.
“When I heard of this rescue, it was one of those rare cases in a Coast Guard career where I was so overcome with pride, I was completely speechless,” Ryan said. “Chief Watson exemplifies the heart and soul of what it means to serve in the Coast Guard—selfless dedication to saving lives in danger. His heroic actions last June were truly in keeping with proud traditions of Coast Guard surfmen on the Outer Banks.”