From a Watery Grave to a Supernatural Life
Own a copy of Dead Man Rising now!
© 2012, Larry Skahill
All Rights Reserved
In loving memory of
Jessica “Jessie-bear” Modeen (1996-2003)
The first time I met Larry was on the afternoon of September 10, 2002. He was in Cottage Hospital’s ICU and heavily medicated due to severe injuries including a shattered hip, broken femur and a lacerated lower bowel. I introduced myself as the Harbor Patrol Supervisor. Larry smiled and cracked a joke that his future career as a Chippendale’s dancer was over. Larry continued with the comic relief between my questions. Knowing his recount of the potentially fatal accident could be distorted due to the effects of morphine and additional pain killers, I knew I would have to base my conclusions more on witness statements from those not directly involved. Despite Larry’s humor in the face of tragedy, I found his account of the incident very similar to independent witness statements.
Larry was an avid swimmer, skin diver and spear fisherman with many years’ experience. He was physically fit and lived a healthy lifestyle. The day before this incident was Larry’s birthday. He spent the day diving at Tajiquas beach with his son and daughter. Larry said he always dives with his dive flag and this day was no exception. During their dive, a passing kayaker grabbed the flag and float, and paddled away with it. The next day, Larry and Kevin dove off Leadbetter Point without the stolen dive flag. Larry and Kevin entered the water near the westernmost swim buoy in a line of buoys designating a “no-power-boat area between the buoys and shore, expecting some safety from passing vessels. But that combination of factors left Larry struggling for his life.
An inexperienced boat driver and crew left Santa Barbara harbor travelling west along Leadbetter Beach, about a half mile offshore. As the 17-foot stern-drive runabout approached Leadbetter Point at fifteen to twenty miles-per-hour, the driver didn’t change course. He continued closer and closer to shore in an area known as a recreation spot for swimmers, surfers and divers. The operator and crew didn’t notice the swim buoy they just passed, or the two skin divers they were about to run over.
Larry’s expectation of safety evaporated in those final seconds. Floating on the surface, looking underwater, he heard the approaching motor and propeller. After unsuccessfully looking for his son, Larry turned to find the boat right on top of him. He bent at the waist and tried to dive, but the propeller struck him on the hip, lower back and buttocks. The water billowed red and the horrific series of events that would forever change his life began.
Larry’s first concern was the safety of his son, Kevin, swimming close-by and his daughter Apryl, alone on the beach. Larry’s concern for his family continued over the following days, weeks and months as he endured numerous reconstructive surgeries and rehabilitation. He remained strong for his family, but often questioned how he could carry on through the pain of his debilitating injuries. Larry’s grit and determination persisted throughout his recovery. Today,
Larry regularly exercises, swims 900 meters three times a week and skin dives the local waters he loves so much.
Had the boat driver remained outside the swim area, kept a proper lookout, and travelled at a safe speed-allowing the ability to determine the risk of collision and take action to avoid it, Larry Skahill would have escaped danger entirely. In the end, his story is one of triumph over adversity and a chilling reminder that recreation in the wild – in the mountains, on the desert or in the ocean – demands rigorous attention to safety. Otherwise, the consequences can be tragic. If you doubt it, ask Larry Skahill. Somehow against all odds, he lived to prove the point.
Captain Steve McCullough
Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol
They say when you die, “your whole life flashes before you.” That’s not quite right. My encounter with death brought to mind various memories, thoughts and visions accompanied by the full, vivid experience of my life as related to that specific memory, thought or vision. I selected a few of these for the book; to include them all would render a book impossible.
Using: my own recollections, thoughts and notes; extensive interviews with doctors, witnesses, my family and emergency personnel; medical records and 9-1-1 transcripts, I first developed a timeline.
You will often have facts at your disposal that I may not have been aware of at the time they occurred. For instance, I was unaware of the extent of my injuries at the time they occurred, yet this information is vital to the progress of the story.
“It’s not that I’m afraid to die.
I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Woody Allen 1935- :
Perhaps my ex-wife is right: I spent my life playing it safe and now I’m making up for it.
Maybe my extreme adventures of late are nothing more than attempts to put my past behind me; to prove my courage, my very manhood.
Right now though, none of that matters.
If my son dies, I’ll never forgive myself.
Whatever you do Larry, don’t panic. The panic-stricken die out here.
Whizz . . . Boom.
Whizz . . . Boom. Whizz . . . Boom.
Danger pulses the ocean water where my son Kevin and I are snorkeling.
Think Larry, think!
Sound travels better in water than in air. Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds.
I can’t see Kevin anywhere!
Oh God, please don’t let anything happen to my son! He’s only seventeen. He’s fought so hard to graduate from high school. He’s a good kid. Things are starting to go right for him. He’s already been through so much.
Please don’t let him get hurt or killed!
When Kevin was only a toddler, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a lung disease that at that time killed its victims by age fourteen. Innumerable middle-of-the-night excursions to the emergency room were a regular feature in our lives. Not a day went by that his mother and I didn’t dread the day when he would be taken from us.
His asthma and constant infections impacted his growth, leaving him small yet powerful. Children with cystic fibrosis don’t have muscular bodies. Kevin did not have cystic fibrosis!
His physique is perfect for breath-hold diving. If I land a fifteen-inch kelp bass, he’ll poke an eighteen-inch calico bass. If I spear two fish, he’ll spear three. On top of that, he uses a pole spear while I have a spear gun!
He has overcome so much in his young life.
Please God, please, Please, PLEASE don’t let my son get hurt!
There is no doubt about it now. That is no plane I hear. There is no Amtrak special traveling down the Union Pacific Railway that follows the coastline of southern Santa Barbara County.
It is a boat. The boat is speeding and it is unmistakably headed in our direction!
God help us!
The lead weights around my waist offset my buoyancy so that the ocean surface is at eye level across my dive mask.
The one-foot swells surround me with walls of water that are impossible to see through as surely as if I am at the bottom of a well.
Using my thirty-four-inch-long free-diving fins, I kick myself higher in the water until the surface falls to my chest.
The ominous thrum of the engine and the high-pitched whine of the propeller draw ever near.
A mile east of us, historic Stearns Wharf of Santa Barbara Harbor stands tall in the hazy sunshine of yet another brilliantly beautiful day on the Central Coast of California. The warm, seventy-six-degree-Fahrenheit weather boils the blue waters of the Pacific. Twenty-four miles away to the south across Santa Barbara Channel, the mountainous peaks of Santa Cruz Island are shrouded with fog.
I look toward the one-hundred-foot-high sandstone cliffs of Leadbetter Point two hundred feet away. Kevin and I entered the sea only two minutes earlier from the sandy beach at the base of these towering sentinels that sheltered many a sailing ship for the past four hundred years.
Fluorescent green, yellow and red kites fly above unseen children running and playing at Shoreline Park located on the mesa above the cliffs.
Immediately to the right of the cliffs lies Leadbetter Beach where my fourteen-year-old daughter, Apryl, is enjoying the sun, tanning on the warm sand.
Thank God she is safe.
But where is Kevin?
Above me, Mike Dawson is at Shoreline Park to fly his kite. First, he decides to walk out to the edge of the cliffs at Leadbetter Point.
Nearing the cliffs’ edge, he observes two free divers in the waters below him, approximately one hundred and fifty feet from the water’s edge.
One of the divers is face down in the water closer to shore, while the other diver is treading water upright, closer to the swim buoy.
Moments before, Kevin was roughly fifteen feet behind me. The brief seconds I spend looking for him seem to take hours.
Is he safe?
There he is, coming out of the surf!
No boat driver in their right mind would knowingly head into the surf, would they?
On top of that, this is a well-known bathing beach. Every boater knows that, don’t they?
Surely, they must see the few, determined surfers a scant twenty yards away, impatiently waiting near the point break for a wave that will not come on this calm day.
How can a boater miss the many buoys marking the swim area?
I turn back toward Santa Cruz Island.
I am underneath the hull of the boat!
Out of the corner of my right eye, I see the once polished, now oxidized aluminum bow sprit aimed at the sky. The keel of the boat is less than two feet to my left at an incredibly steep angle headed straight for me at a tremendous speed!
Without time for a breath or a thought, I try to dive to safety.
Hitting me like a pro linebacker, the 2,400-RPM propeller slashes a fifteen-inch-long gash ten inches deep from my upper left buttock down the backside of my leg, to about four inches above my left knee, obliterating my femur into shrapnel.
A second gash cuts off my tailbone, smashes and breaks my sacrum, severing major nerve bundles to my lower left body!
Catching on one of six five-pound lead weights, the prop follows my tailbone down, slashing my rectum and severing my lower left pelvis in two!
The final invasion of the propeller digs a third severe laceration deep into my right buttock!
The slicing menace rolls me over and pounds me six long feet below the surface as it completes its violence upon me.
The surface never looked so far away from six feet down. The sunlight from the sinking sun slants through the bubble-filled water as I spin several times under the water. Barely buoyant at the surface and with no air in my lungs, my sinking slows but continues.
I try to kick.
My legs won’t move!
Using only my arms, I crawl toward the desperately needed air above.
My lungs ache as I break through the watery barrier at last!
The cool, clean, tangy air never tasted so good!
I’m not dead! I’m not dead!
I spit my snorkel out of my mouth.
“Kevin, I’m hit! I’m hit!”
Dozens of unseen pairs of strong hands shake me violently in a perfectly silent, lethal and ever more powerful rhythm.
I try to yell again, but I choke and cough on ocean water.
I need my snorkel, but my arms can’t move. I look around, but can’t find it!
I float helplessly in the silky sea and stare at the soft blue sky of the late afternoon and wonder:
Am I dying?
Is this the end?
Will I ever see my children again?
What will happen to them?
Help me, Jesus.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly . . .”
—1 Corinthians 13:12, King James Version
While my body drifts in the sea, my thoughts drift back four years. It was a day much like today, hazy sunshine and warm water that caresses the cares out of my life.
Leaning over a shore camp fire, the once-crackling driftwood now a near-perfect bed of coals, I carefully place pieces of two lemon and pepper spiced chickens onto one side of an old lobster trap.
My then-ten-year-old daughter Apryl doesn’t like my using the old rusty trap for a barbeque grill.
“You won’t say that when you get hungry. It’s the best we can do. Otherwise we’d have to carry a grill down those two-hundred-foot cliffs with us.”
“Larry, you and your kids need to get into diving.”
Imposing enough at six-feet two-inches tall, my best friend Stan’s chest-length gray beard and hair spill down his once-black patched wetsuit, covering his shoulders and chest. Carrying his trusty forty-eight-inch faded teak spear-gun, he looks like King Neptune as he backs into the water near El Capitan State Beach, west of Santa Barbara.
“You guys are all fish! You love the water and so do Kevin and Apryl. You’re all naturals.”
“Stan, you come back in fifteen minutes with a three-foot white sea bass and I promise I’ll get into diving.”
The odds of that are about zero.
“I told you I get lucky here Larry. I still can’t believe Vito told me about this spot with all of the white sea bass.”
Immediately to Stan’s right, the gray, ten-foot-tall sandstone and shale boulder with lime-green sea anemones just above the low tide water line, marks the location of “Vito’s.”
The tips of Stan’s jet-black, full-foot dive fins lift as a wave returns to the sea.
“What do they look like?”
Uh – oh. I shouldn’t have asked. Stan’s gonna go off.
“White sea bass grow to over five feet long and the golden outline of their green-striped, powerful bodies exudes a majestic presence in the water. They are at the top of their food chain and are fearless, effective hunters.”
Stan continues to back into the water as he spins his yarn.
“Spearing a white sea bass is the premiere event in the life of most free divers I know.”
Kevin has moved closer to the water, not wanting to miss a word from this old salt.
“When I stalk the other bass and fish in the giant kelp beds off the coast here, they spook and dart off to safety. But white sea bass just accelerate their torpedo-like bodies and depart the area in a manner befitting the royalty that they are.”
Now waist deep, Stan puts his black, j-shaped snorkel in his mouth, turns to the open water, lowers his upper torso down and kicks off into the two-foot surf.
Ten minutes later, he comes out of the water with a beautiful, thirty-four-and-one-half-inch white sea bass!
The camp fire is perfect.
“Forget the chicken!” Stan beams.
The sea bass is so fresh that it’s practically flopping around on the grill.
I dust the firm-yet-tender buttered flesh with a little garlic powder and black pepper.
I started diving three weeks later.
Atop Leadbetter Point, Mike Dawson looks on in disbelief as a brown and white, tri-hull boat going 25 miles-per-hour passes inside the four-foot-tall white-with-orange-lettering swim buoys and runs over the outer diver!
Dawson hears the struck diver calling out to God. In moments, there is a huge, growing ball of blood in the water.
“I’m hit Kevin. I’m hit.”
I can’t believe how much this hurts!
God help me!
I spot Kevin, treading water just outside the barely discernible surf line. I faintly hear him yelling. I can’t make sense of the words.
Is he calling me?
Can he even see me?
Does he know I’ve been hit?
Please God, let me say good-bye to Kevin!
Dawson hears the other diver yelling:
“Call the Coast Guard!”
“Someone, please call 911!”
Mike runs quickly to his car, grabs his cell phone and dials 911.
He is put on hold by the California Highway Patrol dispatcher, awaiting transfer to the Santa Barbara City Emergency 9-1-1 Dispatch Center.
Kevin’s gray and black, wetsuit-covered right arm waves like a shadow back and forth across the sun-drenched cliffs. I think he’s signaling the boaters somewhere off to my left.
I hope they see him. Will they help or speed off? I’ll die without their help!
The dark view through my dive mask is half air and half water. The gentle swell causes my view through the mask to roll up and down.
The light blue sky over Shoreline Park turns a slight orange-pink as the sun sinks lower toward yet another glorious sunset in the west end of the Santa Barbara Channel.
My arms float before me, like a couple of logs. As my body rotates counterclockwise, my arms now frame the lower half of the view to the slowing boat. The sun’s brilliance obliterates my already-blurry first sight of my would-be killers.
The swirling motion of the boat’s wake revolves me below the high, drifting clouds and the hazy sky. As I spin, my gaze lowers to the surface of the water.
In my peripheral vision, I come across my son, now on my left: He has taken off his dive mask and snorkel and is swimming free-style toward me. The one-foot swells rhythmically lift him higher into view only to drop him out of sight every few seconds.
Kevin flicks his head in order to get the water and hair out of his face, like a black Labrador retriever fresh out of the duck pond.
Swells rising gently behind me push my face into the water. The murky water is lit with yellow-white rays of sunshine, slanting from halfway up the left side of my mask, diagonally down into the recesses a mere two or three feet beyond the water stains on the lower right glass of my dive mask.
A dark cloud hangs suspended in the water before me.
There is a peculiar smell to the water that is growing stronger. I can’t remember the taste, but I know I have tasted this exact smell before.
As I watch, the visibility in the water is rapidly getting worse.
The snow-melt water cripples my bare hands. The sea feels like silk caressing my hands.
Help me, Jesus!
The distant horizons race closer as an odorous, boggy miasma fills my view.
How could a scientific guy like me believe in Jesus? Where’s the proof?
Without warning, the fog lifts. Directly in front of my eyes is the top of a solid maple church pew.
If I stand on my tiptoes, and there aren’t too many people in front of us—
“Stop your fidgeting. Sit still and listen.” Standing to my right, Dad is magnificently tall as he gives me the usual Sunday morning instructions.
—maybe I can see God near the altar.
As if on cue, my childish playtime is interrupted by God.
God was talking quietly only a moment ago, but now his voice booms through the church, scaring me.
I don’t understand what he is saying because it’s not in English.
But Dad was right. I should have listened. Now God is going to get me. I wish I could sit still and listen, I really do, but somehow I forget and play.
My big brother said God once played football for Notre Dame.
God isn’t coming our way.
Whew! I guess I’m not in trouble.
On the ride home from church, I pray to God to have Dad and Mom take us out to IHOP for breakfast. It’s my favorite part of Sunday, but we only eat out maybe twice a year.
No luck today.
When we get home, Mom and Dad put a new picture of God up in the dining room, right across from my seat. God is an old man with a big white beard that flows into the clouds that surround him. Brilliant rays of sunshine come from God himself. His arms are open wide, palms outward—kind of like Grandpa’s when I jumped off the train last summer.
Hey, if that’s God, then who is the guy at church that scares me?
I usually love scrambled eggs, but today I can’t wait till breakfast is over.
I run outside and look up.
Alright! It’s a partly cloudy day. If the clouds are made of God’s beard, I should be able to see Him up there somewhere.
I checked out every cloud I saw.
Sometimes rays of sunshine poured through the clouds from a brilliant center.
It must be the gates to heaven!
I looked and looked, but I didn’t see God. I looked at clouds when we drove in the car. I looked at the clouds through the windows. I laid down on my back in the yard and looked. I looked and looked, but I never saw God.
Eventually, I stopped looking.
Now that I have spat out my snorkel, I am no longer a temporary sea creature but a struggling land animal in a hostile environment.
The small amount of seawater in my mask would normally be no problem at all. Now however, the saltwater stings my eyes, subtly adding to my desperation.
I don’t have the strength to yell to Kevin again.
My chest feels as if King Kong is giving me a bear hug.
Think, Larry, think!
If I can get my snorkel back in my mouth, I can relax and breathe normally. That will conserve my strength.
What will happen to my precious little girl? I loved her before she was born and love her fiercely now. I hope my death doesn’t hurt her all her life like the death of Apryl’s grandfather hurt her mom when Apryl’s mom was only thirteen.
Dear God, help my kids understand. Help them all remember how much I love them.
The ocean has turned to ice.
My body paralyzed, all I have left is my drifting mind.
The numbing haze returns:
Seated at our family’s eight-person, huge, dark-walnut dining table, I’m finishing up my second bowl of Wheaties with bananas.
Mom’s sweet, wonderful voice floats in from the kitchen where she is frying up some bacon and eggs for dad.
“As soon as you finish, Larry, you have to get ready for school.”
“It’s Saturday, Mom.”
“This is different. It’s called catechism.”
“Catechism. It’s at church. It’s like school at church.”
School at church?
Church reminds me of school: Big people talking and telling me to sit still and listen. The only good thing about school is recess and the rooster and chickens we had in kindergarten last year.
“What about cartoons?”
“Cartoons will just have to wait.”
I put on my clean church clothes. Getting clothes dirty is my specialty. It’s the only thing I do better than fidgeting and daydreaming. Mom tells me I am talented at finding the dirt.
As I jump out the car door at the church school, mom sentences me to a boring day:
“Don’t get your clothes dirty.”
My first day it’s unanimous: I don’t know how to sit still and listen.
My life is going downhill fast.
In the popsicle-cold seats of the dark classroom, our teacher drones on:
“God made everything.”
I know that.
“You’re a sinner. You do bad things.”
Somebody must have told God about my fidgeting and dirty clothes.
“God has a son named Jesus. He died for you to pay the price of your sins.”
By the time I was in the second grade, I got so good at knowing about God and Jesus they taught me how to eat Jesus and drink his blood. My friends and I used to dare each other to eat strange things like bugs and snails. I still remember my first taste of snail: kind of slimy and salty. But eating Jesus? That’s plain weird.
I learned to confess my sins every Saturday evening. The men on the other side of the curtain didn’t care about my dirty clothes. They didn’t care that I dared my friends to eat bugs or that I sometimes stayed out after dark. They didn’t even mind that I fidgeted in church. They told me to say some prayers and Jesus would forgive me.
I said my prayers and hoped I wouldn’t do anything wrong before eating Jesus the next morning. If I sinned and took communion before talking to the guy behind the curtain, I might go to Hell. Hell was the place where bad people go and get burned to death except they’re already dead. I didn’t quite understand all that; but I knew I didn’t want to go there.
My mind has separated from my bulk, departing toward the same unseen horizon that my drum-beating tormentors left for just a few agonizing moments ago.
Am I paralyzed or dying?
Think, Larry, think!
My senses are heightened as I twirl helplessly in the wake of my assailant. The brilliant sun hurts my eyes as my face mask spins toward the west. I squint through the painful brilliance, desperate to know what is going on around me.
First Kevin, the shoreline and finally the boat swivel out of view.
I hear the voices of the people in the boat or people on the cliffs. I should not be able to hear them at this distance.
The ocean stinks like raw sewage. It is getting in my mouth and burns my throat as I fight it off, looking for my snorkel. In my confusion I forget that the snorkel is attached to my mask and at the right side of my head.
I don’t have the strength to keep my face out of the water.
I’ll drown without my snorkel!
My chest constricts as if a giant anaconda has me in its grasp. I can’t breathe.
“And when he goes to heaven
To Saint Peter he will tell:
Another Marine reporting, sir;
I’ve served my time in hell!”
—Epitaph on grave of Private First Class Cameron of the United States Marine Corps, Guadalcanal, 1942