Man rescued in pier dive keeps faith

November 4, 2006 No Comments

Floating facedown with a twisted spinal cord and a belly full of whiskey, Ronald Williams said he had an epiphany.

“I thought, `Wow, I’m going to die,’ ” recalled Williams, who snapped his neck in a dive off Pacific Beach’s Crystal Pier last month. “That’s when I felt him touch me. I mean it; I felt God’s touch. I heard him say, `You’ve got one more chance, pal. That’s it.’ ”

Williams, 39, jobless and homeless, met a friend who had a bottle of Jack Daniels and that day they drank by the water’s edge. Weighted down by substance abuse, a criminal record and a broken marriage, he recalled announcing that he was going to dive off the pier, but can’t remember doing it.

He only knows he came to the surface and could neither move nor breathe.

Now paralyzed, Williams was unable to wipe away tears as he recounted from his hospital bed the story of his survival from a stunt that everyone involved believed should have killed him.

Seconds after hitting the shallow water head first, he felt the arms of 21-year-old surfer Dustin Lackey.

Lackey was bobbing on his board by the pier waiting for a wave on Oct. 29 when he saw Williams making a strange “penguin-style” dive. When the diver didn’t resurface, Lackey ditched his board and swam to the rescue.

He and fellow surfers flipped the 170-pound Williams over onto his back, cleared his air passage and held him afloat for precious minutes while San Diego lifeguards ferried paramedics out to them on a Jet Ski. This unusual rescue was made, officials said, to avoid further injury to Williams’ spine by dragging him through crashing waves to shore.

The next day, Mayor Jerry Sanders declared Lackey, a Mesa College student, a hero. From around the world, hundreds of people, including Williams’ mother, offered to buy Lackey a new $700 surfboard since his had been stolen during the rescue. Lackey accepted pledge to buy him another one.

In a dim hospital room, Williams beams as he shows how well he can move his arms. He has feeling in his toes, he said, with immense hope that he will not spend the rest of his life as a quadriplegic.

“What hurts is that all those people saying I was trying to kill myself. That’s not true. I have a family that loves me. I love life too much,” Williams said. “I want to live.”

His hope and his family’s support have helped in his recovery, said Dr. James Schwendig, Williams’ physician.

His injury is devastating, the doctor said. “He can roll his left arm over now, but at this point he can’t even feed himself.”

Schwendig sees recovery possibilities for Williams. “He’s doing surprisingly well. If he were depressed and didn’t want to participate, there would be little progress beyond where he is now,” he said.

Jan Williams makes no apologies for her youngest child. She knows about his brushes with the law, the alcoholism that he admits led to violence, including beating a girlfriend, and the crystal- methamphetamine abuse.

She remains proud of her son who always had a good heart and a wild streak, she said. “He always was a daredevil,” she said. All four of her sons were.

Growing up in San Diego in the ’60s and ’70s, her boys loved sports. They skateboarded, body surfed, and flew their bikes off homemade ramps or hitched rides up steep hills by grabbing onto passing cars. Ronald especially loved diving off cliffs and piers.

Jan Williams’ hands shake as she looks at her son in the hospital bed. She said he once had such a good career as a roofer — before the drugs — that he owned three cars, including a red Chevrolet Camaro.

The sight dredges up the bumps in the long road of raising seven children mostly as a single mother. She talks about the call from a relative when her son, Paul, committed suicide; and a call from the hospital the night another son, Doug, flipped his car as a teenager.

In the 1990s, Ronald Williams left his hard-partying friends and moved to Washington state, where one of his brothers was a construction foreman. He said he made a good living and got married. He remained sober, he said, until his wife left him. So, he got into his Camaro and came home.

“He started running around and acting like an idiot again,” his mother said.

Last week, Williams’ recovery suffered a setback when he was diagnosed with pneumonia. But he rallied and is out of intensive care.

Williams needs specialized rehabilitation, his doctor said, but he can’t get it until he qualifies for federal and state insurance programs for the poor.

“That takes a long time,” Schwendig said.

Source: Lisa Petrillo. The San Diego Union – Tribune. San Diego, Calif.: Nov 24, 2006. pg. B.1

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