Quick-acting dog lover rescues drowning snorkler

By Paul Archipley | Aug 15, 2013
Photo by: Paul Archipley Snorkling enthusiast Walter Fassio returns to shore at Marina Beach, a favorite spot for watching sea life. But his near drowning was averted thanks to quick action by his “guardian angel.” “I saw the ugly face of death,” Fassio said.

Walter Fassio had snorkled in the cool waters off Edmonds many times, marveling at the sea life while keeping himself fit.

At 65, he doesn’t let age define him. Besides snorkeling regularly, he also mountain bikes and skateboards, preferring the long boards that are popular with kids who could be his grandchildren. He’s beating Father Time with an active lifestyle.

But his swim on Thursday, July 25, would not be typical. A resident of unincorporated Snohomish County just outside Edmonds, he was snorkeling south of Marina Beach Park, near Edmonds’ dog park.

He had already broken one rule of snorkeling; he was alone.

Watching some flounder below him, about 100 feet from the breakwater, Fassio dived down to touch some.

A Charley horse hit his leg so quickly, and painfully, that he panicked; instead of blowing out of his snorkel, he sucked in, and water rushed into his lungs.

“I just got too excited seeing all the fish out there,” Fassio said. “Then when my cramp hit, I did the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do.”

Dazed and struggling with the “excruciating” pain, Fassio pushed himself off the ocean bottom with his good leg, surfaced, and gasped for air.

He looked toward the shore, realizing he had broken another rule: stay within sight of people. He normally swims near a group of regular beachgoers he has befriended, but he had drifted out of their view.

The few who were within sight didn’t notice he was in trouble.

“I got too much water in my system, and started to pass out,” Fassio said. “And in my last breath, I believe I shouted, ‘Help!’

“I don’t remember.”

Fortunately, one person did notice.

Coree Kennedy and her partner Jennifer were visiting the dog park with their 6-year-old lab, Marley. Kennedy said they were meeting her mother, Chris, who had a new puppy.

They were gazing out from the shoreline when they noticed Fassio.

“I remember us all looking at each other and mentioning that we had never seen a snorkeler before in the Sound,” Kennedy said. “Usually it is just divers, but even they rarely surface near the rocks at the dog park.”

They continued playing with the two dogs, tossing a ball into the water for Marley to snag.

Then she noticed that Fassio appeared to be struggling.

She thought she should assist if he needed help.

“His snorkel was out of his mouth, arms up in the air, and he appeared to be having a hard time keeping his head above water,” Kennedy said.

At first, she didn’t feel a real sense of urgency. But as she walked closer to the shoreline, she could hear him trying to call for help, “at which point my body just reacted, and I jumped in the water and swam out to him.”

She didn’t hesitate, racing fully clothed into the frigid Sound.

“Last thing I remember, in my last gasp of life, was her swimming toward me, shouting, ‘Hang on! I’m coming!’” Fassio said.

She hooked his arm around her neck, tried to calm him down, and started swimming back to shore.

When they reached the jetty rocks where they could both sit, they waited while Fassio caught his breath and the cramp subsided.

Fassio said he vaguely remembered a dog jumping in and swimming toward them. It was Marley.

Later, feeling better, Fassio realized he didn’t know his rescuer’s name, or whether she was all right.

He climbed to the top of the jetty and spotted Kennedy being wrapped in towels by her mom and Jennifer.

They exchanged email addresses and went their separate ways.

Kennedy, a Mill Creek resident and store manager at Papa Murphy’s, said no one else even seemed to notice the near tragedy.

“My family and I were the only ones who even flinched, and I am so grateful that we were there that day,” she said.

“It was one of those ‘right place, right time’ instances, and to me there was no other option but to get Walter back to safety.”

Fassio had been wearing his wetsuit, so the 55-degree water wasn’t an issue in the incident – for him. But Kennedy was in shorts and a blouse, her pockets full with her cell phone, identification and other items, and wearing glasses.

“The most important factor was she didn’t care how cold the water is there,” Fassio said. “She is my guardian angel.”

Fassio recalled being on the other end of a swimming incident many years earlier. A child was drowning in the deep end of a pool at a reception Fassio was attending.

With nary a thought, he too jumped in, fully clothed, to rescue the boy.

“At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal,” he recalled. Now, he realizes, it was.

“This girl who saved me, in such dangerous conditions, probably felt the same way I did back when I saved that boy, that it wasn’t a big deal,” Fassio said.

“But it will be unforgettable for the rest of my life. I can’t thank her enough.”

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