(Sarasota, FL — April 11, 2014) Sarasota attorney Stephen Walker made quite a splash a few years back when he saved the lives of two surfers while on vacation. We thought it was great story and wanted to share it again for those of you who may have missed it the first time. Walker has been called an “accidental hero,” but for those who know him, his heroism was no accident. Here’s the story again as it was published in the 2011 issue of the Florida Bar Journal:
Wrestling a riptide . . . Florida lawyer saves two surfers in distress
By Jan Pudlow Senior Editor
As Stephen Walker paddled to shore on his surfboard, the Salvadorans gathered on the beach to greet him, yelling “¡Esteban, héroe! ¡Esteban, héroe!’’
One wrapped a towel around his shoulders. Another offered him ice-cold water.
In a matter of minutes, this 45-year-old Florida lawyer had gone from vacationing tourist relaxing at a tiki hut to lifesaving rescuer of two exhausted surfers caught helplessly in a riptide sending them further out to sea.
Had Walker, a criminal defense lawyer, been home in Sarasota that August 25 day, he would have been chairing the 12th Circuit Grievance Committee. As fate would have it, Walker presided instead over big trouble at a beach in El Salvador.
His surfing buddy and fellow Sarasota lawyer Morgan Bentley, a member of the Trial Lawyers Section, was an eyewitness to the dramatic rescue.
“All of us have been in situations where things happened so quickly there wasn’t time to think. We would like to think we would do the right thing. In this case, Stephen was the one who acted. Out of dozens of people watching this scene unfold, only Stephen acted,” Bentley recounted.
“It really was a courageous act, one that we all hope to have the mettle to do if we were in the same situation, but you don’t know until you are in it. And two people have their lives to thank him for it.”
Walker downplays the heroics, saying, “Had Morgan not had a rib injury and not been able to paddle, this might be a story about him.” this might be a story about him.”
Instead, Bentley is the storyteller and Walker is the main character in this disaster scene that began leisurely enough as the two Florida lawyers were taking a break from surfing and watching surfers paddle out to catch waves.
“On the far end of the area was a roaring riptide that some better paddlers were using as a free lift out to the outer break,” Bentley recounts. “This thing was the size of the rip that sometimes comes out of the Venice jetties, so it was not for the faint of heart. Out go two guys, looking like locals, so we thought nothing of it.”
A few minutes later, when they looked back out, the two guys appeared to be trying to paddle against the rip to get back to shore.
When Walker saw the surfers turn and face the beach, he knew they were in trouble. When they started kicking their legs, Walker said, “I knew they were done. That tells me they had no strength in their arms, and I knew they were in distress.” As Bentley described: “In what seemed to be only a couple of minutes, these two went from maybe 100 yards off shore to over a quarter mile off shore, and they were accelerating. Of all the people watching, no one moved except Stephen. He jumped up, grabbed his board, told me to go get the hotel staff for help, and took off down the beach right into the rip current.”
By now, both of the distressed surfers had fallen off their boards, with one sinking while his friend tried to keep his head bobbing high enough to breathe.
As Bentley peered through binoculars, he could see that Walker was “windmill paddling through the big breakers and had a clear shot to them.”
Walker, who’d made sure he was in shape for his surfing vacation, paddled confidently.
“I wasn’t concerned about my well-being,” Walker said. “I was yelling, ‘Do you need help?’”
The men didn’t speak English, but it didn’t take words to communicate their desperation.
“I was waving my hands like the guy who guides the airplanes,” Walker said.
“I unfastened the leash on my ankle and gave it to them. . . . I don’t know how he did it, but the younger one in the most distress held onto that leash and I started paddling.”
The force of Walker’s paddling lifted the guy out of the water where he could turn his head up to breathe. The other man grabbed his own surfboard and managed to lie on it.
“Stephen towed all of this mess —two surfboards and one guy in the water, plus himself, into calmer water,” Bentley recounted.
“He then got the guy out of the water and laid him onto his board . . . like a beached mullet. He couldn’t even lift his arms to hold onto the board,” Bentley said.
Using a restaurant on the beach as his marker, Walker knew to paddle parallel to the beach to get out of the rip current.
“I was straining. This is going slower than I thought. But I didn’t want to turn around and say, ‘Fellas, this isn’t really working.’ I had all my energy and air. If I needed other people to come to us, I could have signaled and waved.”
At “some point in our peril,” Walker said, they were freed from the rip current.
“Boom! Everything is fine. You can catch your breath. We’re safe. We made it out of harm’s way,” Walker recalled of that moment.
Bentley then got into the act.
“Stephen then positioned them into the whitewater and got them headed to shore. Unfortunately, the one who had been in the water the longest was too exhausted to stay up and fell back into the water not 50 feet from the shore. That’s when I got to help by dragging him and his board the rest of the way to shore,” Bentley said.
“When he finally got to shore, the guy could not lift himself off the ground so well, so we all picked him up and moved him to higher ground. His friend seemed to recover pretty quickly, but the exhausted one stayed on the beach for over an hour, literally unable to move,” Bentley said.
“After all this, some other help arrived, and he was taken care of, although we never did see him again. . . . The hotel management was extremely grateful. Apparently, drownings are bad for business. They made plans to get a rescue ski jet on the beach to avoid future emergencies.
“Stephen seemed pretty nonchalant and only wanted to know if anyone had seen the great wave he had ridden back in to shore,” Bentley said.
“I, of course, used my association with Stephen to get free drinks at the tiki bar. I gladly accepted all the congratulations on behalf of Stephen from the bar patrons, until they realized I hadn’t actually done anything. Then they quit buying me drinks. Ah, well, it was fun while it lasted.”
As for Walker, he accepted thankful smiles from both men.
“I understood their appreciation,” Walker said. “When I paddled in and got to the beach, I actually saw the young man in the most distress, and I was able to signal, with thumbs up, to see if he was OK, and he was.”
Then Walker, the accidental hero, paddled out to sea to catch another wave.