Albion College swimming and diving coach Keith Havens taught his boys that someone else’s bad fortune was always a terrific opportunity to make a difference in their lives.
Over the years that has meant stopping on the side of the road to assist drivers or administering CPR to unlucky swimmers who desperately needed attention.
But on June 18, 2008 — in the midst of a family vacation in Kilauea, Hawaii — that meant risking their lives to save a young couple who got caught in a rip current while snorkeling.
“We looked out, and there’s this couple waving and hollering out there quite a bit from shore,” Havens said. “I said to my wife, ‘Sue, we should go out and swim where they’re doing it. It looks like they’re having a good time. They’re hootin’ and hollerin’.”
“She said, ‘Keith, they’re calling for help.’”
Keith Havens jumped into action, and his sons Zaak, 23, and Zane, 20, who were taking a walk down the beach, weren’t far behind.
Havens told them he would go for the young woman, Brittany Sorensen, who was about 300 feet from shore, and he instructed his sons to help out her husband, Jason, who was roughly 100 feet farther out.
Grappling with an intense riptide that had developed underneath the coral, Havens used coral towers to help slowly pull him toward shore while taking a beating from the sharp underwater structures.
“There were times when I was swimming back when I would look down and I was not making any progress at all, in fact I was getting washed backwards, and that’s when I had to try to find a coral tower to hang on to,” he said.
But within 12 to 15 minutes, he said he had Brittany in standing water, where Sue met him with a rescue tube a stranger had pulled from a nearby tree.
Meanwhile, Zaak and Zane had stabilized Jason by grabbing onto coral reef also. With the help of their father, it took roughly another 15 minutes of vigorous paddling to bring him in.
The Sorensens suffered no life-threatening injuries — they were just water logged, exhausted and thankful all at once.
For Zaak, it was half an hour unlike anything he’d ever experienced before.
“I was really running out there thinking that I might die trying to get these people. I wasn’t sure about the riptide we were running out to; both my brother and I admitted later we thought it might be a shark attack or something crazy,” he said.
“I was going out there thinking I am literally risking my life for these people who, you know, if I save them I’ll meet them I guess. They could be whoever — but it’s not about judging the people you are saving, whether it’s your friends or a stranger — it’s more about if you have the training and you think you have the ability, you might as well at least try.”
The risk produced great reward. The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission awarded the Havens family with certificates, medals and a special grant Dec. 22, 2010. They also received a Certificate of Merit from the Red Cross in December 2009.
For Havens, though, his family’s effort wasn’t heroic, it was just a prime example of the importance of good rescue training and swimming instruction. He has coached at the college for 25 years and is the director for the college’s Dean Aquatic Center.
“I always encourage my students, if they are swimmers, to take lifeguarding so they can help people, and everybody should take first aid and CPR,” he said. “Look at that situation out there right now in Arizona … the people who jumped in and risked their lives without a second thought to try and protect other people. That’s really what is so important.”
Keith said the rescue effort in Hawaii made him think he and his wife “have done something right with the way we’ve raised our sons.”
Zaak said his father is right about that.
“My dad has always just trained us to help people. We are just trained to be first responders,” he said. “It seems like we’re bad luck to people because when something bad happens it seems like we’re always around. But I think it’s more that we’re just the first ones to do something about.”
As published in the Jackson Citizen Patriot on Jan. 16, 2011