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Rescued Turned Rescuer
Synopsis: A year ago, Thomas C. Rancich, a Navy SEAL, was rescued from the waters of the Persian Gulf when the helicopter he was in crashed. This year, his training helped him save the life of a little girl.
Credits: By John-Henry Doucette
Source: The Virginian Pilot, September 4, 1997
From three floors up, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas C. Rancich could see only a diaper and two legs sticking out of the small pool in the hotel lobby. He began to run.
The 2 1/2-year-old girl was floating upside down in the lobby of the San Antonio Hyatt Regency Hotel. Rancich, a 35-year-old Navy SEAL based in Norfolk, was in Texas for a training conference. He had been returning to his hotel room on Aug. 21 when he heard screams and changed his plans.
He had to run down three flights of stairs. By the time he reached the water, the girl had been pulled out. She was bleeding from her mouth and nose. The skin around her lips was blue and her face was blanched as white as the soaked dress she wore. Her brown eyes, though wide open, looked dead.
"I know CPR," Rancich said.
The five people around the child stepped back.
"You got her," one of them said.
No pulse or breath.
He went to work.
A year ago, it was Rancich who was pulled from the water.
The SEAL was on a helicopter operating off the carrier Enterprise as it steamed in the Persian Gulf on Oct. 25. Rancich remembers watching a member of his SEAL unit sitting between two aircrewmen in the helicopter. The man was laughing. The next thing Rancich recalls was hitting the water.
The Sea Hawk lost altitude suddenly and, at 150 knots per hour, plowed into the glassy waters of the gulf. The helicopter shattered.
Rancich does not remember that part. People later told him he was swimming and talking. He believes he was in shock, relying on the instinct of his survival training. He started remembering when he came to the surface, then felt the sun, his life vest inflating around his cheeks and stinging saltwater in his eyes.
"Sir... Sir... Are you OK?"
"I don't know," Rancich replied. "What happened?"
"We crashed," the man answered. "I'm going to get a head count."
The experience seemed surreal to Rancich, probably because he'd received a sharp blow to the head. A small boat reached the scene with impossible speed. A helicopter from the Enterprise was overhead almost immediately. Rancich remembers someone being hoisted up.
And shouts in the water.
"What's the count?"
"Ten," came a reply. "Missing two."
"Where's the chief?"
"I saw him over there."
Rancich tried to get back to his own helicopter. It was gone. His helmet had been torn off and he had broken ribs, but he was alive. Three of 12 men were dead.
"These guys are messed up. We've got to get 'em back to the boat."
"Easy, easy. These two can't climb. Bowhook, connect to the forward fall."
"This one goes first."
"I've got you, sir."
Rancich was saved.
In San Antonio, he breathed into the girl's mouth. He held her in the crook of his arm as he gave her half-breaths of air. It struck him how small she was in his arms. It was as though she weighed nothing.
Then the mother was there. She was hysterical.
"Come on, Comille!" she cried. "You can do it!"
"Do you know CPR?" the mother asked frantically. "Do you know what you're doing?"
It didn't seem like a good time to answer.
After four minutes of CPR, the girl vomited water in his face. At first he was disheartened. Rancich thought he might have been just blowing air into her stomach and pushing it back out, but then he felt her chest move. He gave her two more puffs and then heard her make a little wheeze.
The girl seemed to come back to life. She coughed and cried.
Spectators in the lobby and along the balconies cheered.
Rancich, like the time he swam free from the submerging helicopter, did not hear anything until the crisis was over. Then he heard the girl, the crowd and everything.
"It sounded real good to me," Rancich said.
"Can I hold her?" the mother begged.
"Absolutely," Rancich told her.
Rancich flew back to Norfolk the following day.
Comille's family called him to say she was fine - sitting down to a big bowl of ice cream.
His wife and sons threw him a "Hero Party." He had ice cream, too.
Now he is back on the job in Norfolk, working on anti-terrorism for Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet.
"It's been a big year," the SEAL said. "I've come full circle from being dragged out of the water to helping someone else."
He laughed and added, "People don't know whether to sit next to me or stay away."
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