2015-09-04 / Front Page

Quick action saves swimmer’s life

Teen nearly dies after belly-flop into the Kennebunk River
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Kennebunkport summer resident Danny Smith, 26, who, on Aug. 18, helped save a 14-year-old boy from drowning in the Kennebunk River after the youngster attempted a forward somersault off Picnic Rock, knocking himself out in the process. (Courtesy photo) Kennebunkport summer resident Danny Smith, 26, who, on Aug. 18, helped save a 14-year-old boy from drowning in the Kennebunk River after the youngster attempted a forward somersault off Picnic Rock, knocking himself out in the process. (Courtesy photo) KENNEBUNK — When the Kennebunk Police Department unveiled its “Challenge Coin” program early last month, Officer Jason McClure never thought he’d give his coin away so quickly, or that he’d be handing them out two at a time.

That was the case, however, following an Aug. 18 incident in which a 14-year-old boy was brought back to life after hitting the Kennebunk River in an epic belly-flop launched off Picnic Rock.

“He went face first into the water and it must have been enough of a shock that it actually stopped his heart,” McClure said on Monday.

Fortunately, a friend of the boy, also 14, pulled the unconscious diver from the water with the help of Kennebunkport resident, Danny Smith, 26, who performed CPR.

Both sides of the “challenge coin,” distributed in early August to all Kennebunk police officers. A symbol of their membership on the force, the coin can be given by officers on the spot to anyone who goes aboveand beyond in aiding the department, or their fellow citizens. (Courtesy photo) Both sides of the “challenge coin,” distributed in early August to all Kennebunk police officers. A symbol of their membership on the force, the coin can be given by officers on the spot to anyone who goes aboveand beyond in aiding the department, or their fellow citizens. (Courtesy photo) “When he came out of the water he wasn’t breathing and they couldn’t detect a pulse,” McClure said. “They basically saved his life. If they were not there to do that, or if they had panicked, I don’t think that young gentleman would be around today.”

At the scene, McClure gave his coin to the 14-year-old rescuer, whose name is not being released by the police department because of his age. Then, as soon McClure procured a replacement coin, he gave it to Smith.

Challenge coins are said to date back to World War II, or even World War I, although many of the stories surrounding their origins appear to be apocryphal. One story holds that American soldiers stationed in Germany adopted a local custom that employed the smallest unit of currency, the pfennig.

Whenever a “pfennig check” was announced, any solider unable to immediately produce an example of the coin was bound to buy a round of drinks for all his buddies.

What is known is, what became known as the challenge coin quickly evolved from a mere token to a tangible source of pride in one’s military unit. For decades the metal die-cast coins have served as a means of promoting a certain esprit de corps among the soldiers who hold them.

Emblazoned on either side with the logo and motto of the unit, the coin would have to be produced upon the request, or “challenge,” of any member of that unit. Failure to immediately come up with the symbol of membership would often result in payment of a penance, the exact nature of which could be as varied, and embarrassing, as the imagination of military men might allow.

Over time, a second tradition arose — that of giving a challenge coin to an outsider, as a sign of respect and symbolic membership in the unit.

Popularity of the coins grew in the decades following the Vietnam War, to the point where the official White House portrait of President Bill Clinton features a set of challenge coins, now kept at his presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas, each given to him during his term of office by the men and women of various military units.

Since that time, challenge coins have become increasingly popular outside of the military, especially in groups that comprised current and retired military personnel, such as fire and police departments, and fraternal organizations. Today, NASCAR, the NFL, members of the Boy Scouts of America who have achieved the rank of Eagle Scout – even the World Series of Poker – all award and exchange challenge coins.

The coin introduced by the Kennebunk Police Department in early August features the badge worn by officers, along with the words representing their core values: excellence, integrity and partnership.

The reverse side of the coin, which is about the size of a silver dollar, depicts the scene also used on the department patch, which features a fishing boat just off the rockbound coast, a Maine black bear on the shore, and the three peaks of Bauneg Beg Mountain, located in North Berwick.

“We are proud to unveil our first Challenge Coin,” read an Aug. 5 posting on the KPD Facebook page. “The purpose of our challenge coin is to instill pride and a sense of unity within the department and the community. Members of the department may bestow these coins to a member of the community for exceptional support to the agency, outstanding acts or accomplishments, life saving acts, heroism, etc.”

McClure said he didn’t hesitate to give his coin to the 14-year-old lifesaver on the scene, or to procure a second one for Smith.

“We all carry them and, basically, when a citizen does something that goes above-andbeyond, we can give it to them on the scene,” he said. “Both of these young men deserve recognition. They didn’t panic and they saved a life that day, they really did.”

Only one other challenge coin had been given out by Kennebunk police, to a young man who reportedly helped a couple of swimmers escape a dangerous riptide.

Smith said Monday he is honored to have been given a coin, although he wasn’t thinking of a reward at the time of the incident. In fact, he wasn’t thinking about much of anything.

“I was really kind of acting on instinct,” he said. “This was absolutely unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.”

Smith spends nine months of the year living in Lincoln, New Hampshire, where he works as a bartender and snowboarding coach.

During the summer months, he stays with his parents in Kennebunkport and works landscaping jobs in the area. At about 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, he and friends knocked off work and headed over to Picnic Rock to cool off after a day spent toiling under the hot sun.

“It was just another day. We didn’t think anything of it,” he said.

Part of the Butler Preserve — a 14-acre site owned by the Kennebunk Land Trust between Route 35 and the Kennebunk River — Picnic Rock is a large glacial boulder located on the riverbank.

It reportedly got its name in the 19th century because boaters traveling the river would often stop there for a refreshing mid-journey meal. During the summer months, it acts almost like a magnet to youngsters. Even so, says McClure, who’s patrolled Kennebunk since 2007, it’s rarely been a trouble spot.

“A lot of kids do swim down there, but we were surprised when we got the call,” he said.

For Smith, just another day quickly became one he will never forget.

“When we got down there that day, there were a couple of kids doing front somersaults off the rock and this one kid did about a flip-and-a-half right onto his face and got knocked out,” Smith recalled. “His buddy was already in the water and I yelled to him to pull him over to the shallow end.

“He got him over to where I could grab him — I had one foot in the water and was up against the rock — and I pulled him up on the rock, so his head was out of the water,” Smith said. “By this point, he was bright purple. He’d been out and not breathing for nearly two minutes.”

Recalling the CPR training he had received eight years earlier while attending Carrabassett Valley High School, Smith immediately went to work, applying chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But all did not go according to the instructions he’d received so many years before.

“His jaw was completely locked, he was totally stiff, just completely out,” Smith said. “But I was, like, I’m not going to just sit here and let this kid die. Someone had already called 911, but I knew I couldn’t just wait for someone to arrive. Even if it only took them a couple of minutes to get there, that might be too late.”

Quickly considering his options, Smith went to work.

“I thought, well, the only other way in to the lungs is through the nose,” he said.

So, covering the boy’s mouth where he might normally pinch off the nostrils, Smith segued from mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to mouth-to-nose.

It worked.

“All of a sudden, his chest filled up with air and I saw his eyes slowly flutter open,” Smith said. “I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, there we go.’ So, I pushed against his chest, then blew again through his nose. Then his jaw released and I continued through the mouth until he came to.

“For about a minute afterward he was really out of it, kind of seeing things, trying to get his head back on the ground,” Smith said, adding with a laugh of post-traumatic relief, “But so was I. The whole thing was crazy.”

First responders arrived shortly after and took over the scene.

“That left me able to gather my thoughts,” Smith said. “It didn’t really hit me until then just how for-real the situation was. I mean, this kid was dying in front of me. The whole thing was absolutely insane. I’m surprised I remembered the CPR training. I was going totally on instinct, I think. Really, I just winged it. My whole head was just like, OK, get it done, this kid needs to live.”

Instinct or intentional, there’s no question in McClure’s mind that Smith saved the young boy’s life. Even so, Smith reserves the real kudos for the boy’s unidentified swimming partner.

“He grabbed him and swam him over to where I was able to get him on shore,” he said. “I mean, the kid was 14 years old — and keep in mind, he was fighting against the current — to keep his head and do that, that was just insane. I can’t imagine what he was thinking. But he’s the one who really made it possible for his friend to live.”

Today, the resurrected diver and his friend have faded into anonymity – their identities protected from public disclosure due to their age – while Smith has returned to his summer routine and preparations for the move back to New Hampshire. The coin, he says, is kept in the top drawer of his bureau, but he can’t resist joking that he’s thinking of moving it to the glove box of his car.

“He knows,” he says with a laugh, “if I ever get pulled over at some point, I might be able to use it as a get-out-of-jailfree card.”

If that need ever arises, the officer will know, at least, that the coin was well-earned before it was given.

“This situation was most definitely not something we run into every day,” McClure said. “This was not a normal occasion.”

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