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Rescue of swimmer is no tall tale for Ken-Ton teacher

Jim O'Connor has quite the tale to tell his fourth-grade students at Edison Elementary School in the Town of Tonawanda when school resumes this week.

And it's all true.

O'Connor, vacationing in Florida with his wife, Liz, was walking along the Atlantic Ocean beach, reveling in the gorgeous sand and seashells Thursday afternoon, when he heard two guys out in the surf, yelling and screaming for help.

A swimmer had been swept out by rip currents at least half a mile from shore in 64-degree waters. That's when O'Connor sprang into action at the Canaveral National Seashore.

With no lifeguards on duty in the winter, he went back to his car, donned his wet suit, grabbed his 10 1/2 -foot-long paddle board and paddled out to rescue the drowning man, whom he knows only by the name Luis.

Then, with the man frantically holding onto the front of the paddle board for life, O'Connor paddled the board back close to shore through those same currents.

Others have described him as a hero, but O'Connor calls himself a reluctant one.

"I guess I was meant to be there that day, to save him," O'Connor said in a half-hour phone interview Saturday from Florida. "I was reluctant to go so far out in a life-and-death situation, but I just had to do it. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't go out there."

O'Connor, 52, who lives in Lakeview, was stand-up paddle-surfing that morning in Cocoa Beach, Fla., calling it the best surfing day of his life.

That afternoon, he headed to Canaveral National Seashore, where a windsurfer had cautioned him not to surf, because there were a lot of sharks. And fishermen told him they had seen some sharks that day.

As he was walking, O'Connor heard two men yelling for help. He later heard the swimmer's wife, at the top of the steps above the beach, screaming frantically.

O'Connor began to call 911, only to learn that someone else had, and that emergency personnel were on their way.

Meanwhile, the victim was being dragged farther and farther away from shore.

O'Connor called his wife, explained that a man was being sucked away from the shore, and that he had to try to save him.

Armed with his wet suit, helmet, life jacket and 10-foot-long surfing leash, O'Connor got on his knees on the paddle board and headed out to the man.

"It was surreal," he recalled. "I just didn't believe it was happening. I thought, 'I'm going to do this.' "

The waves, which he estimates were at least 4 feet high, weren't the only thing O'Connor was battling. He also has a fear of sharks, from a previous incident in the Bahamas.

But then O'Connor spotted the man, who was floating on his back.

"I just kept screaming, 'Hang in there. I'm coming. I'm coming.' "

O'Connor reached the man, who was shivering, wearing only a bathing suit.

"He told me that he had prayed to God, that [he knew] he was going to drown, that his life was over."

Luis grabbed the front of O'Connor's board from below, hanging on, refusing to let go and making it tough for O'Connor to paddle back to shore.

O'Connor remembered looking for rescue helicopters in the area, only to see none.

"Who's going to save us?" he asked himself. "If he got sucked out this far, how am I going to paddle him back in?"

But O'Connor kept battling the weight and the current, finally getting near shore, before a series of waves hammered both men, knocking them off the board and under the surface.

When he bobbed back to the surface, O'Connor found that Luis was behind him, farther away from shore. But a NASA rescue surfer brought Luis back the rest of the way.

O'Connor walked out of the water, to the cheers of the people watching the rescue.

"Obviously, there is a God," O'Connor said. "God had to make a way to get me through the shore break."

O'Connor, whose 25 Edison School fourth-graders in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda District often write their life experiences in a composition book, knows the lesson he wants to share with them:

"You've got to believe in yourself. You've got to do what is right -- and help others in need."

email: gwarner@buffnews.com