Marine Reflects on 2011 Water Rescue

Water Rescue

Ralph Tice, Class of 1974, then (now former) president of The Citadel Alumni Association, and LtGen John W. Rosa (right), Class of 1973 and president of The Citadel (center) present Former Marine Reserve Capt. Abigail R. Zuehlke with a plaque to signify her induction into the Arland D. Williams Society Nov. 11, 2011. Zuehlke, 31, rescued a Marine and his brother from drowning in a fierce rip current at Hunting Island State Park, S.C., July 8, 2011. Zuehlke has since been a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for her heroic actions. Zuehlke is currently assigned to the Inactive Ready Reserve, Marine Forces Reserve. Photo by Russell K. Pace.

NEW ORLEANS (November 30, 2012) – They were going to drown. No one moved. The crowd just stood there, watching a strong rip current wear out three struggling swimmers.

"They were doggy-paddling and treading water but it was rough," said former U.S. Marine Reserve Capt Abigail R. Zuehlke. "There wasn't any rescue team in sight and the crowd of onlookers was steadily growing."

When Abigail arrived with her family and friends at Hunting Island State Park, S.C., they had no idea what was occurring. This was an impromptu stop after a visit to a nearby lighthouse and they were all in shirts and shorts.

Abigail's husband, U.S. Marine Reserve Capt Arthur A. Zuehlke, also noticed the mood was off. So he investigated.

 "When we asked them what was going on, they pointed out to them and said that they had been swimming for a long time," said the artillery officer. "I saw three heads bobbing up and down about 125 meters off."

Abigail knew that she had to save these swimmers. The 2003 Citadel graduate and former lifeguard is a confident swimmer.

At first, her husband was worried for her safety.

"Right away I was like, ‘no,'" he said. "How am I going to explain to her family, my family and our kids that she died? But she was determined. I wasn't going to prevent her from saving people."

"She was carrying her infant daughter Kara in a Baby Bjorn," said Tim Glas, Abigail's friend. "It's just straps and webbing. She took off her sandals… unstrapped the child and handed the child and straps to the father. She gave him a kiss and then headed toward the water."

No one wanted Abigail to go into the water by herself.

"I've been out in that water, I been in that rip current and it can be pretty treacherous," Glas said.  "She's my guest, I wasn't going to let her go out there by herself."

Glas took off his sandals and emptied his pockets. Then he began to trail Abigail.

"I followed behind her about 50 yards out," he said. "I'm 6' 2" so I can wade a distance out. Abigail did the swimming that day. As we were going out into the water she said she had been a lifeguard in high school. I felt at ease. The whole time she was doing the assessment of experience and skills that she was qualified."

She first swam 300 feet to Brandon Santiago. She grabbed him under his arms and started to tow him back to dry land.

 "He was near panic," Glas said. "He was vomiting all over her shoulder. She prayed with him.  Abigail showed great presence of mind in calming this individual who was significantly bigger than she was, and in fairly deep water."

When she was close enough to shore she passed Brandon back to Glas.

"When she got back to the beach there was spontaneous applause for her," Glas said.  "It was as clear to me as it was to them that she was the primary actor.  Really, she was the best candidate to do the job, but with the imagery of the day it was pretty dramatic."

Brandon was in rough shape, Abigail said. He had ingested some water from trying to keep afloat and above water.

 "After the transfer to me, she yelled back to the beach to see where the other swimmer was," Glas said.  "Her husband guided her in the direction of the 2nd swimmer.  Then she immediately turned back out for the 2nd."

After she located Daniel, she headed back to the beach once again.

The last of the three swimmers, Joe Chestner, was able to swim back to shore with no assistance while the other two were being brought in.

"Anyone could've been caught in that situation," Abigail said.  "The swimmers were just on a nasty stretch of beach. The ocean was rough and they did nothing wrong."

With all three swimmers safe ashore, Abigail, and her family and friends left the area promptly. She said she didn't want to make a spectacle of the incident.

 "She wanted to leave very quickly," Glas said. "She is very self-deprecating, very humble so she wanted to tone down her part."

She later found out that Daniel was a fellow Marine who had graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., that same morning.

For her actions, Capt Abigail Zuehlke was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for heroism while off duty on July 8, 2011. She was the first female to be inducted into The Arland D. Williams Society by her Alma Matter Nov. 11, 2011.

She was also one of 21 individuals to receive the Carnegie Medal March 21, 2012 by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, an honor given to those who risked their lives to save others.

"We are all very proud of her, myself and all her friends and family," said her husband. "I'm going to make sure our kids know her story."

With her Reserve Marine Corps career now behind her, Abigail is now taking prerequisite classes toward her nursing degree.

Abigail is also a member of the Marine Corps Individual Ready Reserve.  A component composed primarily of former active component or Reserve Marines who have not completed their eight year contractual military service obligation, or have completed their obligation and remain in the IRR voluntarily. is the official website of the United States Marine Corps and is maintained by the Marine Corps' Division of Public Affairs.