The rough sea did not deter two Town of Bethany Beach employees from braving the waters to save an 11-year-old boy on Monday.
On Oct. 3, a little after 2 p.m. Bethany Beach Public Works employee Sean Ely was on the beach at Maplewood Street when he was flagged down by a woman who informed him that her husband had gone into the ocean in an attempt to save her 11-year-old son, who was drowning in the rough surf.
“I looked and saw both of them in the water, then called police dispatch. I told them people were stuck in the water, in distress. I then took off my shoes and socks and went into the water,” said Ely, who has worked for the Town for 12 years.
“I had just gotten back to the department from lunch. I went into the secretary’s office. She got a call from Sean… ‘Oh, my god — someone’s having problems in the surf,’” recalled Bethany Beach Police Department Sgt. Charles “Chuck” Scharp, who responded to the call.
“I jumped in my police car and headed over there. I ran up to the top of the dunes and saw two people in the water. But it wasn’t at Maplewood — it was between Maplewood and Cedarwood, at Ashwood Street.”
“He told dispatch, ‘I’ve got to go. He’s going under — I’ve got to go in,’” said Bethany Beach Police Chief Michael Redmon. “The surf went out very far that day — probably 25 yards. It was angry seas, and they were over their heads. They couldn’t reach the bottom.”
After Ely went into the water, he swam to the boy and was able to take him from the man, who was struggling to keep him above water. The man, with the help of another bystander, was able to get ashore; however, Ely and the 11-year-old had more difficulty.
“Then, me and the boy started to swim in, but he started to panic,” recalled Ely, who tried to keep the boy calm. “Then I spotted Officer Scharp, and I figured it was best to wait for him to come in and help.”
Scharp joked that he is not as spry as he once was, and running to the edge of the water in his full uniform was tiresome. Once he got there, he removed his police vest, gun belt and shoes before swimming out to help.
“The undertow there was terrible. I’ve been in the ocean hundreds and hundreds of times, and it was just rough,” said Scharp. “He’s trying hard to keep this poor kid up — as he’s pulling his head up, Sean’s head goes down. And when Sean’s head goes up, the kid’s head goes down. The kid’s yelling, ‘We’re going to drown! We’re going to drown!’
“Usually, there’s a shore break, but due to the storm last week, the waves aren’t breaking right on the shore… It was over our heads.”
Scharp instructed the 11-year-old to take hold his neck, as if going for a piggyback ride, and he swam inland to a point where he was able to touch the sand. At that point, he turned to check on Ely, who had been able to make it in as well.
“Somehow, we made it,” he said.
Scharp, who has been with the department since 2005, said that, while he has received training in water rescue, this was his first.
“I’ve been in the ocean hundreds of times — I spearfish and scuba dive — so I’m very familiar with it... But it’s a whole different story, swimming in pants, than it is in a bathing suit. Thank God everyone was OK,” he said, adding, “It’s a good thing we have a fitness program in Bethany Beach.”
Scharp called attention to the heroic act of Ely, who, without hesitation, went into the ocean to help the boy.
“He told me he’s been in the ocean a few times in his life. For him to run out there and, basically, without knowing anything, risk his life to get this kid in — to me that was heroism beyond heroism.”
“It’s probably been eight years,” said Ely of the last time he was in the ocean. “I just don’t like the ocean; it’s not for me.”
Ely said he has never received water-rescue training, nor has he ever been involved in such a rescue during his tenure in Bethany.
“This was the first… Let’s hope it’s the last, too.”
As for his actions being called heroic, Ely said he doesn’t see the big deal.
“I just saw them in trouble and figured I had to do something. I knew help was coming, because I had just got off the phone with our dispatch. Anything I could do to help, I was willing to do.”
Redmon praised Scharp and Ely for their quick response in a dangerous situation.
“It was very heroic of both of them. In the police field, my officers are prepared mentally and physically to go above and beyond the call of duty. Their ability to think quickly and react simultaneously; they’re physically and mentally prepared,” he said.
“Sean Ely is not my employee; however, Sean Ely was the first one there. The mother came up, hysterical, telling him her son was drowning. Sean Ely was very instrumental in keeping that child above water until my officer got there.”
Redmon said Ely and Scharp would be recognized at a future Bethany Beach Town Council meeting for their heroic actions and have been nominated for a national lifesaving award.
“I have a great department, a great group of guys. I have 100-percent respect for them. When they’re out there, they go beyond the call of duty,” he added.