Cindi Vance has searched for four decades to find the Coast Guardsman who pulled her from certain death in the waters off Yaupon Beach near Southport, North Carolina. Today she met him for the first time in more than 44 years.
Tears streamed down her face as David O’Neal walked into the Coast Guard Station in Oak Island. She walked up to him and gave him a long, big hug and sobbed.
“I was a little bitty girl,” whispered Vance.
“Yes you was,” answered O’Neal.
“Thank you,” said Vance as she gave him another hug.
“You have no idea how much I’ve searched for you,” cried Vance. “You have no idea. Before we even had computers. When we had telephone books and I had to look in the telephone book to find a coast guard man.”
Vance was just 12 years old when she got caught in the rip current trying to rescue her younger brother Charles Gregory. O’Neal and another Coast Guardsman Ronald Savage were able to save her, but her brother didn’t survive.
“Actually I do remember you.” she told O’Neal. “I remember us going under. I don’t know if it was the waves that was getting us under. But I remember us drowning. I remember struggling for air. I do remember that.”
She wasn’t able to thank the other Coast Guardsmen who saved her. Savage died several years ago in a car crash. But his son Ronald Savage, Jr., came today. Vance embraced him, too.
Vance says she plans on keeping in contact with O’Neal and Savage’s family for the rest of their lives.
“Even though I am no longer that frightened 12-year-old little girl, there are two men that I will always look up to and they will always be my heroes,” Vance said. “I’m here today to tell you thank you.”
U.S. Coast Guard video by Petty Officer 3rd Class Joseph Jenkins