Large swells of water bobbed the boat as it made its way out into brackish water of Tybee Creek. The Atlantic horizon before them was interrupted by one last mass of land that was their destination–Tybee Island proper, with its popular shops and beach.
Lisa and Greg Smith normally wouldn’t have gone out in such turbulent water, but the draw of showing out-of-towners a good time was enough to override the less-than-ideal conditions. It was the reason why only one other boat was out there on that early Sunday evening, as their boat trundled out from its backyard dock.
“It was a cloudy day,” said Lisa, “not much sun at all and cooler than normal. We were going to head to dinner, but I was too interested in finding out what was going on near the sandbar.”
What was going on near the sandbar had been a thing of interest since Lisa had first looked out her living room window and seen at least a hundred people, all wearing strikingly bright colors, across the creek at the backend of Tybee Island. And as they boated out an hour later, they were still there.
Lisa and Greg did not head to their usual first stop, swinging right from their dock to check on a frequent dolphin hangout. The hubbub across the water seemed worth forgoing the dolphins and delaying dinner.
Their path drew them closer to the other boat. It looked like they were hauling something out of the water. And it was with that late dawning of witnessing surreal things that Lisa recognized the object: a body.
Greg navigated to assist, but the other boat waved to them, “Keep going.”
Greg reset his course, and that gruesome scene–that inert body, hauled with whatever grace anyone can have fetching something of that sort of weight and shape and importance–worked on Lisa’s mind and a new perception of the water took her, one that could explain the floating specks ahead of them.
Tybee Island (pronounced “Tie-Bee”) is a hodgepodge of jagged creeks splicing a club-like piece of Georgian land, a sort of Atlantic land buffer for Savannah. From Savannah to Tybee, five bridges span over the water-cut land.
One of those bridges is mentioned in the famous account of a Savannah murder in the 90s by John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But that bump that made Danny Hansford airborne, symbolizing a man who made the world his rambunctious adult playground, has been shaped into a smooth concrete plane.
My father had driven the bulk of the 12-hour journey from wintery Cincinnati, Ohio, and I remember, noticing the stark change in climate as we exited our vehicle to switch places in South Carolina.
We arrived in Savannah in darkness, lowering our windows at the city’s lights, filling our car with warm humid air. I could just make out the dark shadows of the hanging Spanish moss that would seem rather scary if I didn’t almost feel predisposed to love their romantic fleecing of the trees, the droopy Suessian way that reminds me of how wonderful childhood was when the world could be imagined so.
I thought Tybee was the name of Savannah’s beach, but the poorly lit road heading east kept going, and we all desperately and sleepily waited for my aunt’s house to emerge from the darkness.
I lowered the car window again to test the air for the sea, and it was there, the darkness shielding most of our visibility until we turned on my aunt’s street, almost within the glowing hubbub of the Crab Shack, a beach-festival-adorned restaurant nestled in the midst of a neighborhood.
The next morning, I made coffee and brought my laptop to a seating area in front of my aunt and uncle’s backyard dock. I felt what snowbirds must crave: the juxtaposition of being inundated with the norm of coldness for months with the moderate temperatures of spring and fall, within a day’s travel. It was the same juxtaposition that one gets when sitting by a fire in the northern fall months.
My Aunt Lisa and Uncle Greg’s backyard contained a patio and a long, at least 30 yards in length, dock that reached out over a marsh of seagrass that hugged the land. The dock ended in a lane of water known to Tybeans as the “Back River.”
The docks of the neighbors wound out on either side of me, wooden spider legs reaching out to uninterrupted water. I placed my laptop on a patio table and walked out on the dock.
Clumps of skinny but full-toped trees lined the horizon, the last impediment to seeing the sea. To the right lay Little Tybee Island: the sea grass panning out like a water prairie, tree-lined, vacant of human habitation. Buildings, houses, and docks populated the shore across the waterway: this was the back end of Tybee Island proper.
The head of Tybee, the part that juts into the Atlantic, with one side against the horizon-ending ocean and the other side a creek slightly separating itself from Little Tybee Island, looks like the wings of the United States Postal Service eagle symbol, the bottom tip pointing south.
Tybee Creek functions as the veins of the mass, sending large and small spindles of water into the island, a sort of artery of the ocean that somehow connects in a craggy fashion to the Savannah River, which is responsible for the meandering border of South Carolina and Georgia.
Tybee Creek does not look like a creek, not the creek I had in my backyard in Michigan where I caught tadpoles and minded the leaches. More like a river. (And research upon why this is is akin to going into a deep linguistics dive that finally sums it up with this: someone called it a creek instead of a river.) And it’s this veiny water system—sucked and pushed by the ocean water; and the force of our moon’s gravity; and the crevices of the bottom that create strong currents; and the flowing-to-the-ocean nature of Savannah River—that creates dangerous riptides and fast-moving high tides.
Georgia’s coastal tides have the widest range of low and high tide on the entire American Eastern Seaboard, which means water goes in and out pretty seriously. Georgian waves themselves are pretty small, but the tides are between 6-9 feet in variation. Other tides on the Atlantic coast vary only 2-3 feet. This means that Tybee’s semi-diurnal tides (meaning there are two low and high tides per 24 hours) create large sandbars that open slowly and close quickly, routinely catching people unaware of the fast-moving water that rises rapidly to fill the watery veins of the Tybee Island landmass.
On the southside of Tybee, one of Tybee’s shifting sandbars is exposed for part of the day. When Greg and Lisa first moved to Tybee, the locals told them that someone had died out there the year before. The man had walked out to the sandbar thinking he was anywhere else on the Atlantic coast—meaning he had some time before the sandbar was covered with ocean again. He was swallowed as Tybee’s powerful high tide came gushing back in, his body remaining lost for 15 hours.
On average, one person dies a year due to these Georgian tides. A hard statistic to square, since this is no dangerous and busy highway. Just a sandbar that exists in Earth’s atmosphere for part of the day.
I went to the furthest point of the dock and looked into the water. It seemed calm to me. No waves, although I could hear the suctioning sound of the water moving against wood, watching as the waterline sloshed up and back down, until shiny but soggy-looking wood was revealed, shipwreck-ish, catching a bit of atmosphere, before being submerged again. I looked back across the beach and tried to visualize the colorfully-clothed crowd Lisa described seeing when she took her boat out on a day three people drowned performing a ceremony for Ganesha a couple months prior.
Ganesh Chaturthi is a Hindu celebration that usually takes place around August and September. It is a ten day affair, and it celebrates the arrival of Ganesha, the Hindu god of wisdom and overcoming obstacles.
A large part of the festival belongs to the clay likenesses of Ganesha, newly made each year. The statue is of the elephant-headed god, reposed in a golden sunburst of a chair, his four hands featured in poses of wisdom. These statues come in many sizes: pint-sized or pallet-sized. For the ten days of the celebration, these statues live in homes or public installations.
A ritual is performed to invoke Ganesha’s presence in these statues before offerings of thanks are laid before the statues and on the statues themselves in the form of sweets, rice, and flowers.
At the end of the festival, the clay likenesses of Ganesha are symbolically returned to Mount Kailash, Ganesha’s home. This involves taking these beautiful representations of Ganesha—works of art now—and submerging them into a body of water. Sometimes participants are waste-deep in water if the statue is small. Larger statutes sometimes require shoulder deep water to properly send Ganesha off.
This last and important part is a final gesture of thankfulness, of reluctant but necessary parting, of new beginnings. These are ideals that rise above mere soaked clothes, colorfully splendid or not.
This is what Lisa saw out her window, the final ceremony of Ganesh Chaturthi.
Most of the celebrants on the beach had traveled from surrounding states: Florida, the Carolinas, and Georgia itself. Next-door Savannah is one of the most touristed cities in the South, and Georgia is the center of the mix, a compromise in proximity.
The celebrants asked for a parade license, but were told that unless traffic was blocked, there was no need. So the worshippers walked along the beach until they reached the end of it, where Tybee Creek and the Atlantic meet, near the ominous sandbar that has claimed so many lives, and decided, innocently and with religious intent, that it would be a good place for their ceremony.
The garments for the ceremony were bright oranges and turquoises. People brought representations of Ganesh and put them in the water. In total, 30 people were said to be in the water when the high tide started in on them.
A Loaded Boat
Jenna and Adam (Greg’s daughter and husband) and their kids, aged two and five, were visiting from Philadelphia and had never been to Tybee. Lisa and Greg, who had only lived on Tybee for four months a the time, had purchased a boat a month prior and were eager to play gracious hosts.
The boat had been an easy purchase among two people who would usually hem and haw about such a large expense. But it would seem silly to have a dock with access to a creek that goes to the ocean and not have a boat. That’s what made the purchase easy.
The boat was a yellow 19-foot Carolina Skiff, a flat and not so deep boat that could carry 4-5 people comfortably, but 8 if you really needed to. It was a craft suited for most types of water, reliable and popular, except if you took it to the amplified conditions of the open sea.
It was a Sunday in late September 2015, and Lisa and Greg had decided that another outing on the water was due. Even if the weather was not ideal.
“It seemed like hours past until I realized those were people in the water,” said Lisa.
As they drove toward the specks, they passed another body, face down and not moving. There was nothing to do but to keep going.
And then they could see that some of the specks were in fact moving. Some were swimming over to them. These floundering people had found a second wind after a long struggle against the current, maintaining their heads above water.
Lisa ripped the plastic off the new boat’s unopened life jackets and threw them into the water. A few in the water grabbed them, but most did not: they were too spent and tired.
Slowly, the bobbing heads converged toward the boat, and those on the boat waited, primed to act but helpless to do so. They were able to haul two people in the boat, sapping their strength and the boat’s maximum occupancy.
Lisa tried to haul a man into the boat but could not. Instead, she guided him to the ladder at the back of the boat.
His eyes were almost black, and he was foaming at the mouth from exertion. Instead of a swimsuit, the man had jeans and a belt on. In fact, all of them were fully clothed.
The man did not speak, and finally Lisa asked, “Do you speak English?”
No response. The man had made it to the ladder, but he was too weak to climb up.
Lisa yelled back to Greg and Adam for help.
“Just hold on to him,” said Greg. “We’re going in.”
Lisa put one arm under his shirt and grabbed his belt while using her other arm to push his legs away from the propeller.
On another side of the boat, Adam held onto somebody else. In total, four people hung on to the sides of the boat as Greg pushed the engine to its max speed. Even with all that thrust, the boat slowly bobbed over the large swells to shore. The added weight of eight passengers and five people hanging to the sides was too much for the Carolina skiff.
As he controlled the boat toward the beach, with so much burden, Greg was terrified of making the situation worse: the boat tipping over.
They rode the boat up onto the sand where hundreds of people rushed in to help.
Lisa kept asking, “Has anyone called 911?”
No one had.
Someone shouted to hand Lisa a phone, but the 911 operator told Lisa she was not the first to call. The first call came from a person who had just gotten to the beach too and was lost in the confusion: Greg’s daughter, Jenna.
One of the people that had been hauled into the boat was lowered out of it, and he looked extremely weak. Once the crowd got him out, Lisa ran over to see if he was okay.
“What’s your name?” asked Lisa.
“Well, you were certainly lucky today.”
It brought out a slight smile, but a smile nonetheless.
People were caring for him, so Lisa went back to check on the man she had held onto at the back of the boat.
The Death Zone
There is a place on Mount Everest called the Death Zone. This place exists everywhere on the mountain above 25,000 feet in elevation and is characterized by its lack of life-sustaining oxygen. The body can acclimatize to oxygen levels below 25,000 feet, but above 25,000 feet, the body’s use of oxygen outweighs the environment’s ability to supply it.
The Death Zone not only works against human physiology—breaking down our body’s functions, dulling our decisions, stopping digestion—but diminishes our humanity.
Before John Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air, reached the Everest summit in 1996–before the infamous blizzard would take the lives of people still yet climbing the mountain—Krakauer notes this striking thought:
In this godforsaken place, I felt disconnected from the climbers around me—emotionally, spiritually, physically—to a degree I hadn’t experienced on any previous expedition. We were a team in name only, I’d sadly come to realize. Although in a few hours we would leave camp as a group, we would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty.
When you are paying $60,000 to $70,000 to get to the peak of a mountain whose only “safe” climbing season is a short time period in late-ish May, while also making decisions in a place where the human brain does not function well (above 25,000, in the Death Zone), “the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin. Thus the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses.”
Though Into Thin Air recounts the struggles of both climbers, their guides, and sherpas to save each other in the Death Zone, this was not the case with all the teams making their ascent in that very small climbing window.
On the other side of the mountain, starting from Tibet, a team simply walked past people clearly stopped, in need, and suffering from the adverse elements of the mountain. These unfortunate individuals were passed on the way up and on the way down.
One of passing climbers later said, “We were too tired to help. Above 8,000 meters [26,246 feet] is not a place where people can afford morality.”
This is a sort of morbid mountain culture that exists when human energy is the most important resource. Everyone goes up knowing the risks, and to try and help someone is to risk one’s own life. It is as if the human evolutionary drive, the thing that makes our species a huge success, ceases to exist in these places.
This fear, fear of losing ourselves, our empathy, is endemic. It is the thing that brings us to eat up dystopian novels, to read Lord of the Flies in our schools, to imbibe zombie apocalypse stories, and to be awestruck at accounts of war, where the enemy is sufficiently dehumanized while those on your side, just the opposite. It is what even now draws us to the news, shaking our heads side to side at the inhumanity, the senselessness of terrible actions.
And this is why the Death Zone is terrifying: it destroys what makes us human.
When some of the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrants, standing in the Georgian waters, lost their footing and began to be swept away, others tried to save them. Lucky, the man Lisa had checked on, was DJing the event and dashed into the waters when he realized what was going on.
The saviors, now unmoored, were then similarly swept away in the strong currents. More attempts were made to help but the same result occurred until all there was to do was to watch in horror.
And this is terrible to illustrate, but I’m illustrating it because it is this that is ignored when those who were equally swept away made their attempts to save someone who was already swept away.
There must be no other panic than of being heedless of your swimming capabilities or the fright of being drawn into an expanse of ocean with almost infinite ends. And then setting out to be good, to be the most human, to save another life, and then to realize you are a problem for someone else.
The beach dwindles, along with those who would risk their lives to save you. Soon, you are alone in the middle of wide open area, near the entrance to an entire ocean, yet markers of civilization and land full of wild nature surround you. A terrible juxtaposition, existing in a slow temporal state, helpless except for the instinct to keep your head above water, lungs expanding and contracting as much as your limbs.
The man Lisa could not haul up was pale and not doing so well on the beach until, all of a sudden, he let out what Lisa said was “buckets of salt water.” Slowly, he regained his awareness and mind.
Greg and Adam decided to go back out on water, search some more. They asked for volunteers from the crowd.
The kids stayed back on the beach with Jenna. Lisa, a former nurse, decided to stay close to two of the people they had pulled out of the water who still seemed pretty weak.
While Greg and Adam were getting ready to shove off, a man who had been participating in the ceremony jumped in the boat and promptly said, “I don’t know how to swim.”
Given the circumstances of the disaster, this was worrisome. Perhaps reckless.
Adam handed a lifejacket to the man: “Put this on.”
Out in the water, they lost track of the boat that they had first seen, the one that had hauled in the first body. They assumed that the boat was continuing their search or had gone to the police.
Two people were out kayaking near the coast, but they hadn’t seen anything.
And then they found someone. He was hauled onto the boat, lifeless. A search and rescue mission striking its worst chord.
They went back to the beach.
Fifteen minutes after Lisa called 911, a lifeguard appeared on the beach with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). He approached Lisa and laid down the AED to help her. It was then that Adam and Greg returned. The lifeguard looked up, saw the boat, exclaimed expletives, and ran to it.
The first Coast Guard arrived at the beach in a small dinghy. They were looking for another body, bringing the informal tally to three.
Lifeguards, the police, and Coast Guard were now all on the beach. The people that Lisa and Greg had saved were either with their families or on their way to the hospital. Things were as stable as they could be.
In total, the incident occurred within 20 minutes. With the Tybee tide, it did not take long for a chain of well-meaning humans to drift farther and farther from the beach, out into the middle of the Back River.
The third body was found the next day.
Spectre of the Death Zone
Lisa couldn’t sleep for two months. All she could see through her living room window were heads bobbing in the water, the evening sunlight making the scene shimmer. She could not shake this feeling that occurred when evening approached, as if a clock was ticking to warn of the ending daylight hours, the task of finding people before they succumbed to the water still present.
A place they had just moved to was now associated with something awful, the scene of a tragedy, something they could see out their window, the same portal that drew them to be essential to the rescue of lives of many.
They each confessed their worries to each other, their guilt. Greg confessed how he had worried that he was putting them all in danger with that many people on the boat. Lisa reminded him that the boat salesperson mentioned the stability of the Carolina Skiff, a vessel almost impossible to capsize.
Adam confided to Greg that Adam himself could have been an issue if he had fallen overboard: “I would not be able to help. I’m not a strong swimmer. I would have been just another casualty.”
Lisa what-ifed: “[W]e would NEVER have been able to save as many if it were just Greg and me. Thank God Adam and Jenna were there visiting. Adam was the one leading the charge and physically helping, while Greg operated the boat. I in no way would have been able to manage either.”
And this was the lighter side of psychological trauma from those that retained that memory of that day. The heavier side were with those on the beach, watching helplessly or heeding the urge to wade out past safety. And those that were past saving.
Days later, Greg decided to visit the police station. He wanted to see if he could find out if the people they had pulled out of the water and sent to the hospital had recovered.
It was there that he learned that the group of worshipers had arrived 20 minutes after the lifeguards had ended their shifts. Furthermore, the worshipers may have come from the Back River side, which lifeguards would not have seen from the Atlantic Beach area.
On that same day of the tragedy, my Aunt Pat, Lisa’s sister, was in an area near Hilton Head with my cousin, his wife, and their new baby. She saw the news, and the headline was “Lifeguards Save Seven People.” She told Greg and Lisa this, but Greg and Lisa never tried to contact the press and correct it. It was a source of anxiety, thinking back on it. Interacting with it in any way, if they did, would make it all come back. The scene, of course, still sat just right out their living room window.
Lisa told me that she knows some of the people involved in the ceremony work at a local company, but she has yet to call and see what happened to the people they had saved. It’s too much even to feel some goodness for what they did to confront the entire issue, even though she often remembers the man she held at the ladder. How was he? What did he remember?
The only hook that they still have is that before they left the beach, they gave the leader of the ceremony their number. But the man never called, possibly because he used someone else’s phone to save their contact information. The man’s own phone was wet and dead. Now their information was probably lost amongst the contacts we have all amassed in our smartphones.
It is a large theme in literature and history that nature will always win. We witness the pure power of water in our own houses every year. We know that our water pipes and mains, strong and technologically wonderful as they seem, will at some point fail.
But we also know we’ve done pretty well against nature as a species. Perhaps too well.
We humans have an in-built urge to save, even if our prowess for doing so is beyond us. It is only when you push the limits of an Everest, when we name an area of the land “The Death Zone,” we push against a normal humanity norm: that of saving others.
In Tybee, the instinct was immediate and dangerous. The worshipers on the beach had been living in the moment when it was time to do what was humanly required, whether it was prudent or practical or safe or not. And as the would-be saviors were swept away, the crises of that decision to inaction must have been awful.
And without a formalized call or cry or plea, Lisa, Greg, Adam, and Jenna were there to help what nature had overwhelmed. An evening scheduled for relaxation changed course drastically: Lisa reverting to her skills as a nurse, Adam forgetting his own watery weaknesses, Jenna managing her children and communications, and Greg losing the fastidiousness he applies to new technologies—as he pushed the new boat past any new owner’s comfort to maximize life-saving potential, running it up on the beach in a lurch.