First waves, then the flames: Ga. family's vacation anything but relaxing

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First waves, then the flames: Ga. family's vacation anything but relaxing

Published Tuesday, July 10, 2012   |  675 Words  |  

An Augusta, Ga., family of nine vacationing on Harbor Island went from the group rescued from the ocean Monday evening to one that helped save an apartment building from a fire only six hours later.

The strange day started at about 2:30 p.m. when three adults and six children-- ages 3 to 13 -- tied four inflatable rafts together and floated just off the beach at Harbor Island on St. Helena Island.

But what was supposed to be a leisurely afternoon on the water turned dangerous when a combination of cross-currents and strong winds pushed them out of shallow water out into St. Helena Sound.

One of the vacationer's, Shawn Rhodes, 38, said the family has vacationed in Harbor Island for the last 12 years and had often tied the rafts together without problems.

This time was different: in a matter of three minutes, they knew they were in trouble.

The oars they brought with them were useless in the current and the wind from the shore carried their cries out to sea rather than toward help.

As they drifted further out, the three adults in the group -- Rhodes and her sister and brother-in-law, Karen and Charles Randall -- decided Karen would have to swim for help.

It was not a journey she relished. Karen, 33, had been stung by a jellyfish as a teenager and hadn't gone swimming in the ocean in about 20 years. On Monday afternoon, she had little choice. She slid off her raft with only a blue inflatable ring the size of a lampshade and a fierce determination to get help for the eight people she left behind.

"That's my whole family," she said Tuesday. "My whole world."

She swam about a mile and a half to shore.

Charles and Shawn stayed with the kids -- Lauren Hustead, 13, Haley Hustead, 10, Ian Randall, 9, Noah Wiggins, 11, MichaelaRhodes, 6, and McKenzie Wiggins, 3.

"The kids were crying," Charles said. One of the rafts was slowly losing air.

Karen reached the shore more than an hour later.

Meanwhile, a passing shrimp boat had spotted the rafts and called rescue personnel.

Karen was met by Kimberly Bradley of the Harbor Island security force.

The Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District, Fripp Island Fire Department and Fripp Island Sea Rescue brought the floating family to safety. A Coast Guard helicopter was also called out but did not participate on the rescue.

As Karen retold the story Tuesday, she touched her forehead lightly to show the faint blue and purple bruises where the rough surf pounded her face for more than an hour.

"I couldn't sit there and do nothing," she said. "We felt so hopeless ... but I fought through it."

By 6 p.m., everyone was back on shore, shaken, but unharmed.

They were all looking forward to a nice, quiet evening.

No such luck.

Around midnight Karen and Shawn smelled plastic burning and discovered the storage shed of the vacant apartment next to their's was on fire.

Karen called 911.

The same firefighters who helped save them put out the flames, Shawn said.

The cause of the fire is unknown but is not considered suspicious, fire district spokesman Lee Levesque said Tuesday. The only materials in the shed were beach toys and a battery-powered drill, apartment owner Evan Abrams said. No other units were damaged.

All of Monday's excitement brought a slight adjustment to the group's plans for Tuesday.

They decided to spend the day anywhere but near the ocean.

"We'll be by the pool," Shawn said.

Follow reporter Anne Christnovich at

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8 rescued from rafts in St. Helena Sound after drifting 2 miles offshore, July 9, 2012