A Louisiana wildlife and fisheries agent is being hailed as a hero after rescuing a drowning 7-year-old girl trapped underneath a boat that capsized off of Grand Isle Beach.
Sergeant Stephen Rhodes of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was in the right place at the right time as he patrolled the beach on Saturday, May 7, and witnessed the boat go under.
According to Rhodes, the girl became trapped after falling off the boat and getting stuck due to her life jacket.
The officer was initially supposed to be patrolling a beach in Golden Meadows 28 miles from Grand Isle, but a call about people violating fish-catching limits brought him to the area — a coincidence that may have saved the girl’s life that day.
The sergeant and a few other good Samaritans witnessed the vessel sinking in high waves near the rock jetties and immediately jumped into action, with bystanders offering Rhodes their ATV to get him to the parking lot where his boat was more quickly.
When Rhodes made it out to the sinking boat 10 minutes later, he was met with screams from the distraught family yelling that one of their children was stuck in the water. Eight people were on the boat, including five adults and three children.
Rhodes was told by the girl’s brother that she was wearing a life jacket when she fell into the water.
“When he said that, I knew there were only two options: She slipped the jacket because it was oversized, or the lifejacket has her trapped under the boat,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes jumped into the water and felt underneath the boat until he found the girl trapped near the bow. He then dove under and grabbed her by the shirt and life jacket to pull her to safety, but she wasn’t breathing.
“Her eyes were open, and her gaze was fixed. She was not blinking,” Rhodes said. The officer then got her onto the boat and began to perform CPR.
After performing several chest compressions and rescue breaths, the girl began to revive.
“I took my hand and rested it on her chest, and I could feel her heart racing away,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes believes that there was a small amount of air underneath the boat to allow the girl to survive for the 10 minutes it took for him to reach her.
“That’s way longer than any person should be deprived of oxygen,” he said.
An ambulance was waiting for them at the marina, where paramedics immediately took her off Rhodes’ hands and drove her to Lady of the Sea General Hospital.
Rhodes said the girl stopped breathing and lost a pulse during the trip, but was restabilized and airlifted to Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, where she remained stable.
After the rescue, Rhodes volunteered to get the capsized boat out of the water to have a private moment to decompress.
“I needed that private moment to not break down,” he said.
Rhodes said he had “front row seats to a miracle that day,” and added that he would never forget the moment when the girl regained consciousness.
“Putting my hand on her chest and feeling her heart beating, I will never forget that moment, ever,” Rhodes said.
Colonel Chad Hebert with the LDWF Enforcement Division praised Rhodes’ actions.
“We are extremely proud of the actions of Sgt. Rhodes. He did an exceptional job of using good judgment and his training to help save the life of this young girl and the other occupants in the capsized vessel. Would also like to thank all of the good Samaritans that assisted in this successful rescue. Sgt. Rhodes was on patrol by himself, and these good Samaritans helped him perform this rescue faster. That time saved probably made it possible to resuscitate the young girl.”
The girl is expected to make a full recovery.