Guam – The following article of interest on ocean safety was posted on the AAFB website this week.
READ the article on the Andersen Air Force Base website HERE or in FULL below:
2/13/2012 – ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam — “I thought we were going to die,” said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Alanza, 36th Wing noncommissioned officer in charge of chaplain affairs, as he looks back on what he describes as the single most horrifying experience of his life.
A stoic expression settles across the sergeant’s face, as he reflects on the events of the clear, warm day that would irrevocably alter his perception of the world around him.
“It’s still fresh in my mind,” Sergeant Alanza said. “When I close my eyes I see us there; my son being pulled from me, his boot floating past me on the waves. It haunts me.”
Dec. 11, 2011 was shaping up to be another average Sunday on Guam. The temperature outside was hot. The kind of hot that leaves a light sheen of sweat on your forehead in the time it takes to walk from the front door to the car. The air was heavy with moisture and salt, urging the Alanza family down Sander’s Slope to the nearby beaches.
“After dropping my wife and stepson off at Tarague Beach, my son Donovan and I headed to Serena for a swim,” Sergeant Alanza said. “We got our gear; goggles, snorkels, boogie boards and decided to float around and relax.”
How much time passed, Sergeant Alanza cannot say. Minutes slipped by unnoticed in the glare of the afternoon sun; the slow-rolling waves inviting the father of four to stay just a while longer in its orange glow.
“We were facing toward the open ocean, totally oblivious to how far we were drifting,” he said. “When I turned back to the beach I realized we had gone much farther than I thought. We were probably about 300 yards from the shore.”
Sliding off their boogie boards, Sergeant Alanza and his 12 year old son fought against the waves and fierce currents, attempting to close the gap between them and the safety of the beach. Though he maintained the appearance of calm, panic had begun to take hold as the sergeant realized despite their best efforts, they were being swept farther out to sea.
“When we realized we were being pulled out we ditched our boards,” he said. “We started screaming for help at the top of our lungs, but the beach was deserted and the waves were getting bigger. Donovan had taken in water and tried to cling to me out of fear. I had to push him from me so we wouldn’t be pulled down.”
Minutes crept by as the waves battered the pair until their muscles, burning with the effort of staying afloat, began to fail them. Sergeant Alanza’s mind drifted to the stories of Airmen who had lost their lives in the beautiful waters surrounding Guam. He tried hard to banish thoughts that his own death would soon be another cautionary tale, but couldn’t.
“The waves were so strong that my son was pulled from me,” he said. “After a while he was gone from my sight completely. I thought my son had drowned and numerous times I thought how easy it would be to give up, to just quit fighting and slip beneath the waves with him.”
Clinging feebly to his will to live, Sergeant Alanza continued to fight until fate stepped in and dealt him a lucky hand. The waves were cresting and falling on a nearby reef. The sergeant knew the way he landed on the jagged rocks would mean either life or death; he braced himself and surged forward.
“I came down just as a large, table like area of the reef was exposed and I was able to stand up for a split second; catch my breath and gain a little energy,” Sergeant Alanza said. “My relief was short lived and at that moment another wave came; it proceeded to slam and beat me across the reef.”
“Somehow, the wave wedged me in between two sections,” he continued. “The gap was big enough for my legs and I was able to pull myself free and I soon realized I was being pushed toward a shallow patch of reef.”
With enormous relief, Sergeant Alanza realized that he was out of danger. He proceeded to stumble across the reef, making his way to the shore with only one thought echoing in his mind: his son.
“It’s hard to put into words how it felt when I saw him,” Sergeant Alanza said. “He was standing there on the beach where we’d left our gear with tears streaming down his face. All I could do was hug him and be grateful that he’d made it out alive.”
Though both he and his son made a full recovery, Sergeant Alanza emerged from the water that day with a newfound respect for life, and the power of the open ocean.
“I look at the water now and all I can think is, “what is it capable of?”, he said. “The water may look calm, like the waves aren’t that big, but you don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface. Once it pulls you out, you’re at the mercy of the ocean.”
Tech. Sgt. Jesse Opena, 36th Wing Weapons Safety manager, echoed Sergeant Alanza’s sentiments.
“We are surrounded by the beautiful beaches and we’re naturally drawn to the tropical relaxation Guam has to offer,” he said. “Knowing your limits is crucial. You should always look for signs of unsafe water such as advisories or lifeguard warnings. Weather warnings and Tarague Beach closures are always posted and sent out through email channels and the giant voice.”
“Different parts of the island have different hazards so it’s crucial to practice common sense,” he continued. “Never push your limits or try to test Guam’s waters.”
Determined to do all he can to prevent loss of life, Sergeant Alanza and his family make frequent trips to Serena Beach to scan the waters for Airmen who may have made the same mistake he did.
“My first time being deployed I was sent to Iraq,” he said. “As we taxied in, a mortar was shot over the top of our C-130. But that situation on the beach that day, that was the closest I have ever been to death. I want to share my experience with Airmen. If they see someone they know, a father who nearly lost his son, they’ll listen.”