DUCK, North Carolina — After a day of gathering coastal survey information, it was time to wash the Army Corps of Engineers Lighter, Amphibious, Resupply, Cargo (LARC) vessel and head back to the office, then home for the evening.
At least that was Mark Preisser's thought before a rip current changed the plan.
The USACE Engineer Research and Development Center coastal and hydraulics lab engineering tech heard cries coming from the beach at the Field Research Facility that sounded like someone was in trouble.
"I ran up over the dune to see three young men, probably 50 yards out in the ocean, crying and waving desperately for help," he said.
"The moment I realized those young men were in trouble, my adrenaline kicked in. There was not a question in my mind, or time to think much about what I was about to do," Preisser said. "The look of those boys in panic and their desperate yelling for help stirred me to do what I did."
Still wearing his foul weather gear from being on the boat, Preisser quickly started stripping down to his blue jeans. Another young man, Sam, on the beach realized the situation and entered the water the same time as the CE tech.
"Of the three in trouble, one was swimming back toward the beach," Preisser said. "He made it back to land on his own."
Sam, knowing that Preisser was behind him, swam to the distressed swimmer that was furthest from the beach.
Preisser, a former competitive swimmer, could hear cries of "help me!" as he approached one panicked young man. He calmly assured the scared swimmer that he would be okay and instructed him to "turn over and float on your back; I am going to put my arm under yours."
The young man replied that he didn't float but trusted his rescuer and turned over as instructed, although he could not relax.
Preisser realized they were making little headway against the rip current, but remaining calm, told the tired swimmer, "We'll use the waves to help us, so kick hard when the waves approach and we will ride the waves in."
His strategy worked and soon they were able to touch bottom and walk back onto the beach.
Preisser then looked in the Atlantic Ocean to check on the other rescue. Sam had reached the other young man, but they were still about 65 yards from shore.
He decided that the best chance of a rescue was to take the LARC back out and ran over the dune to the waiting vehicle. "I started it up. No one was around to assist me, so I drove it over the dune and into the ocean."
The two swimmers were now under the 1,840-foot-long research pier, trying to find a place to hold onto until rescued. Having just completed a hydrographic survey of the beach and near shore a few hours earlier, Preisser knew the current would prevent the LARC from crashing into the pier, so he pulled alongside just 10 yards away and killed the prop.
He then motioned the swimmers to come toward the vessel. Sam boarded first, and together they pulled the exhausted young swimmer out of the water. Preisser then quickly headed the LARC back to the beach.
Once on dry land, Preisser checked on his passengers. The rescued swimmer mumbled a few words but was "too weak to lie down or even lift his head," Preisser said. A few minutes after landing on the beach the emergency rescue squad arrived and transported the exhausted swimmer to the hospital.
The ocean rescue life guards informed Preisser that the young man would be okay and credited him with saving the young man's life, making him a hero to that young swimmer and in the eyes of all who hear his rescue story.
"I don't feel like a hero. I happened to be in the right place at the right time to help some people out. I believe almost everybody would have done what I did. "