This story is what human beings are suppose to do – a tale of true herosim
As Mayer Yacowar floated in the open sea, the swelling waves crashing over his head, he contemplated his choices.
It was late September and the 47-year-old Toronto doctor was snorkeling off the coast of Turks and Caicos when the waters grew suddenly violent. On one side, clinging to his arm, was Yacowar’s 6-year-old son, Noah, wearing a flimsy life vest. On his other side was Shawn and Helen Ghalili, a young couple from Toronto, trying desperately not to drown in the increasingly choppy waters.
Yacowar realized he could only help the couple by letting go of his son. It was a difficult decision for any father but Noah made it for him.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Dad, go do what you do best. Go save those people,’ ” Yacowar recalls. “And my son let go.”
Twenty minutes later, all four swimmers were back on the boat, safe and sound. The two families had never met prior to this chance encounter in the middle of the ocean.
The Ghalilis married last September and were celebrating their first anniversary at The Beaches resort, where Yacowar was vacationing with his wife, Sonia Provencher, and their three children.
Helen, 28, and Shawn Ghalili, 37, had taken a boat tour to go snorkeling about 20 minutes out into the sea. They had so much fun marvelling at brightly coloured fish and turtles that Shawn didn’t notice his life vest gradually deflating. He also didn’t notice the waves getting bigger, eventually reaching about a metre overhead.
“I started getting water in my mask and my pipe,” he recalls. “Every time I would come up for air, the water would beat right in my face. That’s when I started panicking.”
Helen noticed her husband flailing and swam over to him, trying to keep the 178-pound man above the water as he gasped for air.
Some metres away, Yacowar and Noah were also snorkeling, having come out on the same boat. The boy had held onto his father the entire time and Yacowar began to worry when he noticed the waves had carried them far from the boat. He was about to turn back when he noticed the Ghalilis.
“His wife was there trying to hold him up and she looked kind of panicky,” he says. “I swam closer and then I saw him there. You could see it in his eyes, that he was going under.”
Yacowar, a former lifeguard, knew he could pull them to safety but also realized the effort would require two free arms.
He asked Noah, who has been swimming since the age of 2, if he could handle getting back to the boat on his own. And that’s when his tiny son lifted his fingers from his father’s arm.
Yacowar swam to the Ghalilis and instructed Shawn to grab onto his back. He began dragging him back toward the boat with Helen swimming alongside but after about 10 minutes, she grew tired too.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, you can hang on to my other shoulder,’ ” Shawn Ghalili recalls.
Keeping his eyes trained on his son, who never swam more than a few metres ahead, Yacowar continued the rest of the journey with both Ghalilis on his back. But the family doctor suffers from heart disease himself and he could feel his chest constricting.
Noah stopped periodically to look back at his father and encouraged the trio to keep pressing on. “My dad has you, don’t worry, don’t worry,” he called out.
“He was my inspiration,” Yacowar says. “My chest was hurting, I felt it pounding . . . but it didn’t make any difference. I just said, ‘We were going to get to the boat.’ ”
When the foursome neared the boat, a lifeguard finally noticed them and helped pull the couple to safety. Yacowar climbed back on board with Noah, too exhausted to speak.
It wasn’t until the Ghalilis returned to their hotel room that they were struck by the enormity of what had just happened.
“That could have been it,” Shawn Ghalili says. “All of our hopes and dreams, and all the plans we made for our life, could have come to an end.”
The Ghalilis spent the rest of their holiday scouring their resort for the Yacowars — they didn’t even know their name. It wasn’t until they got to the airport that they finally ran into them again.
They shook Yacowar’s hand and thanked Noah for his bravery. But those professions of gratitude still didn’t seem like enough and when the Ghalilis returned to Toronto, they sat down and wrote a thank-you letter.
“If there was one thing we learned from you, it was: “leave no man behind” — as you yourself told us as you hauled us back to the boat,” they wrote.
“We also learned that the bravest men can sometimes be as young as 6 years old. Thanks to you both, we are still alive and breathing today.”
This isn’t Yacowar’s first rescue at sea. About six years ago in Hawaii, a Japanese tourist had her neck crushed by a wave. He brought her to shore and revived her with CPR.