Boaters save former mayor from near drowning on Beaufort River
By Tony Kukulich, Bob Sofaly and Mike McCombs
An afternoon of sailing took a near-tragic turn for former City of Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling when his boat overturned, throwing both Billy and his brother Paul Keyserling into the Beaufort River, Saturday afternoon, May 21.
Other boaters on the river that afternoon noticed the floundering sailboat near the Beaufort Sandbar and moved in to provide assistance. Witnesses said that initially both Billy and Paul were alert and appeared to be uninjured. Within minutes Billy was unresponsive, and saving his life became a critical race against time for the passing boaters who attempted his rescue.
“That’s the craziest thing,” said Lexie Murray-Benton, who was on one of the first boats to arrive on scene. “It happened so fast. We had plenty of time to get them to the boat. For some reason, Billy went under.”
Walterboro resident Mikey Covington was on the same boat as Murray-Benton. He said that Billy and Paul were hoping to right the capsized boat, and they declined the rescuers’ attempts to pull them from the water.
“Billy went under to try to cut the sail, and he stayed under,” Covington said. “The water was as choppy as I’ve ever seen it. It was windy. Thirty seconds went by. Forty-five seconds went by. He finally came up. When he came up, you could tell he was in trouble.”
Chris Jarrell, who was on the boat with Covington, realized that Billy was in distress and jumped in to help, followed quickly by Covington. Neither man had a life vest on and they struggled in the rough conditions to keep Billy, who was also without a life jacket, afloat. They attempted to get Billy onto their boat, but the deep-well design made the task impossible.
“He pretty much died in my arms,” Covington said. “He was dead, I feel like.”
At the same time, Tara and Phillip Hodges were on their boat headed back toward Beaufort from Port Royal when they noticed the sinking sailboat. Without hesitation, they joined the rescue effort. Their low-profile boat provided a better option to get Billy out of the water, though after 15 or 20 minutes of treading water, it was still far from an easy endeavor for Jarrell and Covington.
“It took all we could do to get him in that boat,” Covington said. “It was all we could do.”
With Billy aboard their boat, Tara said that Phillip turned him onto his side, a critical first step in Billy’s rescue.
“For Phillip to do that and get the ball rolling with it was huge in the life cycle,” said Deputy Chief Ross Vezin of the Beaufort Port Royal Fire Department (BPRFD).
Murray-Benton, a registered nurse, jumped aboard the Hodges boat and immediately started CPR on Billy.
“It was the only thing I could do,” she said. “That water was no joke that day. I immediately jumped on their boat and put him on his back. The first compression, I immediately felt his ribs crack. With every compression, loads and loads of water was just coming out of him. At that point of time, I was like, ‘OK, this is really, really bad.’ His eyes were fixed. He was lifeless, pulseless, blue. It was bad. I’m an emergency room nurse here in Walterboro. We do codes all the time. This was definitely the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Another boat arrived with another nurse aboard. Ashley Higgins, a licensed practical nurse from Walterboro, hopped onto the Hodges’ boat and relieved Murray-Benton, who then went to attend to Covington and Jarrell. Higgins continued life-saving efforts while Phillip piloted the boat toward the dock at Beaufort Memorial Hospital (BMH).
“My husband was driving,” Tara said. “If the fire trucks had not been there, we would have never have seen the docks. There’s nothing there that lets you know there are docks there from the distance we were at. We had to go around the sandbar and people were screaming to go faster.”
The fact that a fire truck was already at BMH was a stroke of good fortune for a rescue effort that needed everything to go right. Lt. Clint Holmes was acting BPRFD battalion chief on Saturday when he heard the area’s marine rescue organization (MRO) get dispatched shortly after 1 p.m. to Beaufort Memorial. He made the decision to respond to the hospital and sent BPRFD Ladder 2 along as well.
“I was up by the helipad over there by the maternity ward of Beaufort Memorial Hospital, and (Ladder 2 was) down at the dock,” Holmes explained. “The reason I parked up there at the helipad is that it’s kind of higher up. There ain’t but one hill in Beaufort, and that’s it.”
From his elevated vantage point, Holmes saw the boats surrounding the capsized sailboat. He then noticed the Hodges’ boat streaking across the river toward the hospital with Higgins performing chest compressions in the bow.
“We weren’t initially dispatched to that,” Holmes continued. “So then I got on the radio and told them that we need an EMS unit here. There’s active CPR in progress.”
Lt. Trey Carter and Firefighter Zach Painter from Ladder 2 were waiting on the docks when the Hodges arrived. Their faces there were familiar to Tara, who works as an office manager for the BPRFD. While she regularly reads the department’s incident reports, it’s rare that she sees the department in action first hand.
Billy was taken off the boat and Carter and Painter took over CPR efforts. They were joined by Firefighter D.J. Henry and volunteer Luke Bowman.
“Watching them, it was like magic,” Tara stated. “(Billy) was blue. The nurse on the boat with us said he was dead. They picked him up onto that dock, and our guys got him back. They didn’t stop. They kept pumping water out of him. He had tons of water they pumped out of him. They continued to do CPR and put him on oxygen. All of the sudden I heard one of them yell, ‘He’s got a pulse. He’s got a pulse.’ I still get chills. It was amazing.”
With the detection of a pulse, firefighters stopped chest compressions but continued rescue breaths.
“We got a real strong carotid pulse,” Holmes said. “That’s when EMS showed up.”
A second ambulance was called for Paul, who was brought to the dock by another boat, but Holmes said it wasn’t needed. Billy’s care was handed off to BMH staff.
In addition to the firefighters, Tara credited the nurses who attended Billy; the men who got him out of the water and her husband Phillip for getting the boat safely across the sand bar at high speed with saving Billy’s life. She said he would have never survived if they had run aground.
“Everybody was trying to do the best they can to help get this guy out of the water,” Tara said. “Nobody knew who it was. We were just trying to save this man’s life, get him out of the water and to the hospital.”
Sources said that Billy was admitted to the intensive care unit at Beaufort Memorial Hospital and was initially placed on a respirator. According to reports, he is talking and eating, though in some level of discomfort due to his broken ribs.
“He’s lucky to have a chance at all,” Holmes offered. “All the chain of survival was there.”
Greg Lucas, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said that the accident is under investigation. Covington, however, thought that the high winds on the water that day played a role in the incident.
“The sailboat they had was a smaller sailboat with a very large sail,” he said. “It was just too windy. It was too windy for that small sailboat. It caught that sail and blew them right over. That’s 100% what happened.”
Keyserling, 73, served three terms as mayor of Beaufort. He was first elected in 2008 and ran unopposed in 2012 and 2016. He opted not to run in 2020.
Speaking following the pronouncement of Safe Boating Week during Tuesday’s city council meeting, Mayor Stephen Murray said he had visited the former mayor in the hospital.
“He’s recovering well, expected to make a full recovery,” Murray said. “I appreciate the good Samaritans, first responders and folks at Beaufort Memorial Hospital who responded quickly and appropriately.”
Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bob Sofaly has been photographing people and what they do in Beaufort since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Mike McCombs is the editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.