When Doug Hicks sits down to Christmas dinner at his sister’s house next week, he’ll know that if it wasn’t for a man named Bill Byers, he wouldn’t be alive to celebrate.
Byers, the night security guard at Elliott Bay Marina, rescued Hicks after he fell into the water two weeks ago while trying to step aboard his sailboat at night. Hicks, 67, is believed to have been in the water for more than half an hour and was slipping into unconsciousness when Byers came to his aid.
“Bill didn’t assist in saving my life,” Hicks said yesterday. “Bill saved my life.”
Byers was recognized for his actions with an award from his employer, Seattle-based Northwest Protective Service. Company president and CEO Randy Neely came to the marina on a recent morning and presented Byers with a letter of recognition.
Byers had just started his shift at 11:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 3, when Hicks stopped by the office to say hello. The two chatted for a few minutes, then Hicks, who runs the marina’s fuel dock and lives aboard his sailboat, headed home to J dock.
Soon after, Byers started out for his first patrol of the evening. He likes to switch up the route, and that night he set out from the marina office in the opposite direction of J dock. He headed along the pathway running perpendicular to the marina’s docks, looped through the parking lot and was making his way toward the office when he thought he heard a call for help drifting across the black, frigid waters of the marina.
Byers froze in the drizzly night, straining to hear. The gusty wind that had howled through the marina earlier in the evening had died down. The voice called out again, and this time it was unmistakable. Someone was in trouble.
The calls seemed to be coming from the general direction of J dock. Knowing that a couple of marina employees live on the dock, Byers ran down it, looking between boats as he went. Then he heard the voice again, this time calling his name. Not many marina employees knew his name, he thought. It must be Doug.
Hicks had been about to climb onto the sturdy step hanging over the side of his boat, but he misstepped and hurtled sideways, hitting his head before landing in the water between his boat and the dock.
Hicks blacked out momentarily, coming to with his head above the surface. He fought to get himself out, trying to get a footing under the dock or pull himself up on one of his mooring lines. The swim ladder on his boat was secured in the upright position, rendering it useless.
Hicks realized if he didn’t get help, he would soon die. He started calling for help. Disoriented, his sense of time disappeared. Perhaps from shock, he didn’t feel the cold. At some point he started feeling warmer, a symptom of hypothermia setting in.
Hicks started to relax. This isn’t so bad, he thought. I’ll just backstroke to shore. Just as he began to surrender, Hicks saw Byers’ feet. Then Byers grabbed his arm, and the edges of reality blurred.
Byers called 911, struggling to explain to the dispatcher what a gatehouse was and which end of the marina they were at. Hicks was slipping in and out of consciousness. Panicked, Byers told the dispatcher the situation was dire. Minutes could mean Hicks’ life. She stayed on the phone while he waited for help to arrive. It seemed like an eternity.
“I was keeping his head out of the water. All I could do at that point is wait,” Byers said. “I was worried he wasn’t going to make it. It was pretty close, I think.”
Police officers arrived shortly, followed by paramedics. Hicks was loaded onto a stretcher and rushed to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He remembers nothing of being pulled out of the water, and little of the ambulance ride and his arrival at the hospital. After being treated for hypothermia, he was released about six hours later. His ribs were inflamed and painful from his efforts to pull himself out of the water but otherwise, Hicks was fine.
The swim ladder on Hicks’ Catalina 30, Swagman, is now unlatched so that if he falls in, he can easily pull it down and get himself out. Hicks, who was previously the marina’s harbormaster, believes the onus is on boat owners to install swim ladders on their vessels as a safety measure.
“It’s your boat,” he said. “You’re fully responsible for it.”
Hicks realizes how fortunate he is. If the wind had been gusting loudly that night, if Byers was wearing ear muffs or listening to an iPod, if he was the type to speed through his rounds and not take the time to listen, well, Hicks wouldn’t be sitting in the marina office drinking coffee on a brisk morning a week before Christmas.
“Bill really stops and looks and listens at each gate,” Hicks said. “I’ve seen him on his rounds before. He’s diligent about what he does.”
The two men have chatted frequently since Byers started working at the marina almost two and a half years ago. Looking at all the boats and hearing how much Hicks loves sailing sparked an interest in Byers. He started asking questions and on Hicks’ suggestion, enrolled in boating classes.
“Doug’s real knowledgeable about boating,” he said. “I enjoyed those talks.”
The pair have run into each other less since Hicks stopped working in the office and took over management of the marina’s fuel dock. But the close call has created a bond that’s hard to characterize. How do you put into words your feelings about a colleague-turned-friend who saved your life?
“For my new brother Bill,” Hicks said, “I would do anything.”