Capo Beach man saves a life at San O January 18
By Jim Shilander
Jeff Russell says he hasn’t quite been able to shake the image that confronted him on Jan. 18 at San Onofre, a day he wasn’t sure he was going to surf.
That morning, Russell came upon the seemingly lifeless body of Josh Iwai, a 14-year-old surfer from Monrovia, who was out with others from the Monrovia Surf Club.
Iwai, who described it as a “normal surf day,” was paddling back out after a wave when he saw another surfer coming up fast. The surfer did not see him.
“I saw his board coming at me and after that I don’t remember anything,” Iwai said.
He was struck by the surfboard, and temporarily lost consciousness. But what was scarier, he said, was what happened when he came back.
“I remember being in the water and trying to breathe for air but couldn’t because I was paralyzed,” he said. “I lost consciousness again.”
Russell said he too was paddling out when he saw a loose surfboard.
“I can’t stand people who surf without a leash,” Russell said. “I saw a board floating around. It kind of annoyed me, but I went to grab the board. I was looking for somebody swimming back, looking for their board and there was no one. Then I saw a bump, it was a wetsuit.”
It was Iwai.
Russell said it was the last thing he would see.
“Your stomach just drops,” Russell said. “You think maybe it’s a kid just being an idiot, and you’re hoping that’s it. But I jumped off my board and went to grab his ankle.”
Just then, a wave came and knocked Iwai’s ankle away about 10 feet, but it was enough to convince Russell this was something different.
“He didn’t jerk at all, he just got washed out of my hands. If someone’s playing they’d jerk, and he didn’t,” he said.
Russell immediately went after Iwai again and flipped him over.
“You think you’re going to flip him over and find some dude dead,” Russell said. “I flipped him over, and here was a kid. He was bleeding from the forehead but he was alive. And he screamed when I flipped him over.”
Iwai took a big gasp of air. He said when Russell began walking him back to shore, all he could do was look at his arms uselessly and yell out that he’d been paralyzed.
“He just told me, “You’ll be OK,” Iwai said.
Russell said he’d heard from friends who’d made rescues before and thought it would be “pretty awesome.” His own experience was different, however.
“I had no idea how traumatic it was,” Russell said. “When he screamed… I’m still trying to deal with that moment, when you realized he’s alive and it’s someone’s kid. Immediately he becomes your boy.”
Russell said the walk in was not a pleasant one, with both he and Iwai having to deal with their boards dragging behind them and trying to keep Iwai’s head above water. He took off his own leash to keep his board from impeding his way back. He also began signaling to people onshore to help.
“No one was coming, there was one guy in jeans who just ignored me. I think he just didn’t want to get wet,” Russell said. “I just kept huffin’ it. Finally a dad came out to me with a baby in his arms.”
Russell had the man unleash Iwai’s board when others began coming and Josh was put down on the beach. At that point, lifeguards showed up, as did a woman who helped stabilize Iwai.
Iwai said he was told he was awake during the beach rescue efforts, though he has no memory of it.
Josh’s father, Craig Iwai, said his son began to get the feeling back in his arms on the beach and by the time he was taken to a hospital, he’d regained all feeling in his limbs. He also sustained a concussion, as well as the gash to the head.
“Without him there, he would have drowned,” Craig Iwai said of Russell. “There were a lot of surfers in the water, but nobody saw him.”
Russell and the Iwais have talked regularly since the incident.
“It’s been awesome,” Russell said. “(Craig) He’s been very cool. The one image that keeps coming back to you is the one where he flipped over. Craig sent me a picture of Josh doing fine, sitting on the couch in the living room. In my stressful moments, I just look at it. It helps calm my nerves.”
Russell has been invited to an Iwai family event to meet Josh under less traumatic circumstances next month.
“That’s gonna be pretty cathartic,” Russell said. “That kid’s a fighter and for that, I’m thankful.”