Natural instinct kicked in when Benjamin Cagle saw two men fall into the murky depths of a McConnells neighborhood pond on Saturday.
“Nothing else went through my mind,” Cagle said about his decision to discard his boots and clothes, jump into dirty water and try to rescue two men he had met only minutes before.
He was able to rescue one of the men, but the other drowned in the pond at a campground at S.C. 321 off Polly Circle. Around 1:30 p.m. Saturday, the York County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team and York County Emergency Response Team responded to the scene. Two hours later, they recovered the body of Raimon Gordon, 37, of Rock Hill, said Cotton Howell, director for York County’s Emergency Management Office.
Gordon drowned after the boat in which he and another man were fishing overturned, throwing them both into the water. Witnesses at the scene said it appeared something was wrong with the boat’s motor, officials say.
Cagle and a woman at the scene both dived into the water in a desperate attempt to save the men’s lives. And now, both balk at the label of “hero.”
On Friday, Cagle, 33, of York, decided to treat his four sons to a fishing trip at the campground surrounding the pond “just to get out of the house,” he said. Friday night, they set up their tents, and Saturday morning, they cast their fishing lines at the pond’s bank.
As Cagle watched his boys fish, two men in what he called a “little johnboat” went by and waved.
“I asked them if they had caught anything,” Cagle said on Sunday.
One of the men replied, “A two pound bass,” Cagle said.
The men continued to fish around the pond. Cagle looked over and saw one of the strangers stand up, as if he had just caught another fish.
That’s when the boat teetered, capsized and threw both men into the water. Seconds later, they were flapping their arms in panic.
It didn’t take Cagle long to decide what to do. He told the owner of the campground to call 911, then he began stripping his boots and clothing as he ran across the pond’s bank. Getting as close as he could to the boat, he dived in.
He grabbed one of the men and swam back to shore. Then he went in for the next one, who Cagle said had already been under the water for nearly four minutes.
Nearby, a woman Cagle didn’t know jumped in to help. She went for the second man and reached him first.
The woman who jumped in to save Gordon gave a similar account.
“To be honest, it was all a blur,” she said. “I stayed focused on the one guyto keep my eye on him to make sure he didn’t go under.”
She grabbed him and, with all her might, pulled him up.
“He was unresponsive,” she said.
Her words stained with regret and sorrow, the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she wants Gordon’s family that she did everything she could to save him.
“It’s not fair; I wish I could’ve done more. I tried, I tried everything to get him out,” she said.
By the time Cagle joined them, it was too late. He “was too deep in the mud,” Cagle said.
The woman grabbed the man and pulled him up. She begged for him to breathe but there was no breath left.
“He wasn’t moving and she was still moving, trying to get him out,” Cagle said. “All I could do was grab her and pull her back up. There was nothing else we could do.”
It appeared that neither man could swim, Cagle said. Neither wore a lifejacket.
Cagle admitted that when he went in to save Gordon, most of his energy was spent saving the first man, who was much larger than Cagle himself. Nevertheless, Cagle dived again.
“The pond was so dirty, I couldn’t even find him,” he said.
Seconds later, he had to come up for air.
“I wish I could’ve pulled him out of the mud and started CPR It bothers me that I didn’t have the oxygen to pull the other guy up. I should’ve given my life to save his,” said Cagle, a father of four sons and one daughter.
When he returned to shore, he met with Gordon’s friend. The man thanked Cagle for saving his life.
“He told me he had a wife and four kids,” Cagle said.
Then, both men wept on each other’s shoulders. Cagle still doesn’t know the other man’s name.
“I told him I’m sorry, I wish I could’ve saved his buddy,” Cagle said.
A day after saving a life, Cagle still hasn’t slept.
He can’t. Every time he closes his eyes, he said, he sees Gordon’s eyes, open wide, looking at him. When Cagle tried to grab onto Gordon in the mud, the man’s eyes were open, “looking dead at me,” he said.
On Sunday, Cagle was unable to get into contact with Gordon’s family. But he does have a message for them.
“I want to tell them I’m sorry. I wish I was stronger; I did my best. Please forgive me. I wish I was stronger – I’m not that big of a man. I wasn’t strong enough to save him and I’m sorry.”
‘A special child’
Glenda Gordon will always remember the last time she saw her son, Raimon. It was Saturday morning. He had just come over to ask his mother to watch after his two daughters while he went fishing. Gordon had just bought a boat he was eager to take onto the water.
“He loved fishing; he always wanted to fish with his daddy,” Glenda said on Sunday. “Any spare time he had, he was always fishing.”
But more than fishing, Gordon loved his children.
“He always did for his children,” Glenda said. “He had one boy and two girls, and they loved him dearly. It was always, ‘daddy this,’ ‘daddy that.’ They hardly called on mom because they knew dad was easier and they could get their way.”
Glenda also said Gordon was devoted to his family. After her husband – Gordon’s father, Robert, died two years ago, Gordon became Glenda’s “backbone,” she said, always willing to cut her grass or do whatever else she asked him to do.
“He was my very special child,” she said.
His death is “like somebody punched a hole in my heart,” she said.
The best action to take when someone’s in danger of drowning is to throw them a flotation device and pull them ashore, said Cotton Howell, director of York County’s Emergency Management office. But, that’s “the textbook answer,” he said.
Faced with the reality of the situation, Cagle and the woman “set their own safety aside to help total strangers,” Howell said. Their actions were “pure heroism,” Howell said.
“What’s the best thing to do or the worst thing to do doesn’t matter” in this case, Howell said. “They didn’t hesitate. They didn’t talk about it. They didn’t wait. That’s just pure heroism; that’s all you can call it.”
Their actions deserve special recognition, Howell said. Though nothing’s set in stone yet, the York County Emergency Management Office wants to do something to show both rescuers that what they did was special.
“That’s special people that do that,” Howell said.