On a cold January night in 2004, Imperial Beach Lifeguard Matt Wilson risked his life to save two girls who had jumped off the pier. The two girls were so changed by the experience and the positive influence Wilson had on them that they became lifeguards themselves. The three are now co-workers and friends.
Wilson had just returned home from cleaning the hull of boats off the Coronado bridge. “My puppy started biting me [when I got home] so I decided to take him for a walk…I was so tired…it almost didn’t happen,” he said about the rescue. Wilson took the puppy for a walk near the pier.
Ashley Hedrick was 12 years old and Helen Sylvia was 13. They had met through a mutual friend the day before. Hedrick said she had mentioned to her mom, also the day before, that she wanted to jump off the pier but was not taken seriously.
The day of their jump, Hendrick recalls the surf was 8 to 10 feet. Another friend was with them but he decided not to jump at the last minute. Once the girls jumped it was not as easy as they thought to get to the shore.
Wilson recalls the waves were breaking by the first building on the pier and colliding and there was a strong rip current. While he was walking his dog, a kid on a bike approached him. He was Ashley and Helen’s friend who had not jumped. He told Wilson, “My friends need help - call 911.”
Wilson started evaluating the situation. “I saw people running. I really thought they’d be dead by now. The water was super cold. I quickly thought if I have to look for bodies I have to have a wetsuit,” Wilson recalled thinking.
He went to his truck, called 911 put his dog in the car and drove to get closer to the pier. By then the ambulance and the fire department were at the scene. Somebody threw an extension cord to Sylvia to hold on to but it wrapped around her leg.
Wilson entered the water and reached her and was afraid he would get knocked out but was able to bring her in.
“I was wearing a white tank top and I remember it was red with blood,” recalled Sylvia.
Before jumping in to rescue Hedrick, Wilson considered waiting for the helicopter to do search and rescue, then he heard a whistle. It was a homeless man who told him, “I see her, she’s down there,” said Wilson who hesitated and then jumped off the pier.
“There was so much water moving it was like a river. I saw Ashley [Hendrick] disappear …I thought I saw her drown,” he said.
Big sets of waves kept breaking on top of her then she would come up, then another giant wave. Hedrick remembers touching the sand, then getting sucked back out.
Hedrick had been in the water between 30 to 45 minutes and she had many scrapes from getting thrown against the pilings. Wilson finally got a hold of her.
“I thought I was dead. I remember that sense of relief,” Hendrick said. After being rescued she asked “Am I going to live?”
The girls were treated for hypothermia and Hedrick had cuts all over her arms and a cut on her head that was glued.
“I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for him,” she said of Wilson.
“You guys were strong, if you weren’t strong…” said Wilson.
“I was a good pool swimmer but not an ocean swimmer. I learned it that night,” said Hedrick.
Because of the number of emergency and rescue personnel and vehicles, expenses for the rescue added to $50,000 and the authorities were planning on charging the families a portion of the amount.
Wilson thought there was a better solution, although at first he said he was angry at the girls for jumping. “I admired their spunk, their sense of adventure. It was a rite of passage. I did it as a kid. I wanted to show them when to do it,” he recalled.
So he came up with an idea. To pay their debt, the girls were enrolled in junior lifeguards that summer and after the camp they worked at the station doing whatever was needed from washing the trucks to mopping floors.
“It was a beautiful thing. These two young ladies got a wake up call, got a second chance through the junior lifeguard program,” said Wilson.
“It kept us out of trouble, we got into a new circle of friends, we wore uniforms, we were all fit and in love with the ocean. I learned how to surf…went through the program and came back every year after that,” said Hedrick who became best friends with Sylvia.
“For me… I came from a troubled family and the lifeguards became my role model… with the junior guards it was a way to interact with good people in the community,” said Sylvia.
“We were introduced to people in the community. It felt good to have that family,” said Hedrick.
Wilson became a teacher at Mar Vista High School and was Sylvia’s Spanish teacher. Wilson’s dad often drove her to surf P.E. to help her out.
When Sylvia turned 18 she became a lifeguard.
Hedrick took the long route.
A few years ago on her first try she failed the run by 3 seconds; the next time she passed and when she was ready to start, the former fire chief didn’t like her tattoos so she wasn’t hired, she explained. Hedrick wrote it off and became interested in yoga. She studied yoga in India and Thailand and taught yoga.
Five years later she finally became a lifeguard and now all three worked together this summer as seasonal lifeguards.
“I didn’t give up. I was meant to be here. It feels good. I’m proud to wear this uniform,” said Hedrick.
Sylvia is now training to be a fire fighter and is the drummer on a local band called Coral Bells which will perform during the Salute to the Military on Nov. 12.
Looking back, Wilson said, “That was kid stuff, it’s behind us. We kept in contact and their families became my friends. For many years the girls would write me a card on the anniversary. One year it was coming up to the date and I realized how important those girls are to me. How awesome. It opened my eyes to the importance of helping people. It is important to me as a teacher I did make a difference.”
Because of the rescue Wilson received many awards, met Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and received a declaration from Senator Barbara Boxer. Some say he is the most highly decorated lifeguard in the state.
“It’s a true reward to be colleagues with these guys…I have rescued a lot of people. This rescue had a bigger impact on my life that’s going to last. These guys are [my] friends for life,” said Wilson.
“I’m forever grateful. My life changed [after the rescue]. If that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be the person I’m today. I still think about it,” said Hedrick who is now in college studying kinesiology and would like to teach P.E. and health.
“Life is so hard. I remember a year ago I was going through life struggles…now am training to be a fire fighter which is a hard thing for me to do physically. I use that story to help me through it. I use the story as a perspective…how far we have all come. That was the worst decision I ever made, but it was the best because I learned from my mistake. I’m here for a reason,” said Sylvia.
“It was a wake up call,” said Hedrick.
“I credit the rescue for getting my first teaching job, the principal gave me my first break at teaching,” said Wilson.