Six months ago, Coweta-Fayette Electric Membership Corp.’s Dustin Arrington and Tennessee firefighter Steve Ellison were strangers. Today, they share an unbreakable bond formed over a life-or-death situation.
The two men have kept in regular contact since late June, when Arrington came to Ellison’s rescue in a riptide in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City Beach, Florida. Despite having no training in water rescue, the journeyman-lineworker at the Palmetto, Georgia, co-op, didn’t hesitate to act.
“Our story needs to be told,” said Ellison, a firefighter in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “It was such a selfless act. [Arrington] has a wife and a child, but he put all that aside to help a stranger. I now have a brother for life.”
Arrington, his wife, Michelle, and 2-year-old daughter, Reese, were on their first day of vacation in Panama City Beach when he heard people “screaming and hollering” and forming a crowd. “It was crazy. I was tending to my daughter when I heard my wife say that someone was drowning. That’s when I realized there was a serious problem.”
Thinking he could perform CPR if needed, Arrington handed off Reese to his wife, emptied his pockets and ran to the scene.
From the shore, he saw three people about 60 yards out in the water, the tips of their heads barely visible. “I just went for it by myself. When I got there, I saw [an adult male] and by the look in his eyes, I could tell it was serious. He said, ‘Help me, man.’ And he went under and came back up and said it again: ‘Help me.’”
Arrington knew enough about water rescue to understand it was crucial that neither the victim nor the rescuer should panic. He told Ellison to relax and lay back against him and, with his arm under the firefighter, they began to make their way to shore.
“That’s when I realized how big this guy was, and I’m 6-foot-1 and weigh 180 pounds,” Arrington said of Ellison, a 300-pound former college football player.
At one point, Ellison lost consciousness. Arrington struggled to keep the firefighter’s face out of the water while 3-foot to 4-foot waves crashed over them.
“I fought through it without being able to get a deep breath. I felt like I was suffocating in my chest. That’s the best way to describe it,” said Arrington. “I kept swimming with it, and I finally got to where I could feel sand under my feet. That was the best feeling I ever felt in my life.”
When they reached the shore, two bystanders helped Arrington drag Ellison to safety. The two other swimmers, Ellison’s son and nephew, made it back to shore after a hotel worker swam out and threw them life jackets.
Ellison, 40, was transferred to a hospital in Destin, where he stayed in the ICU for two days before being released. Ellison said doctors told him he had heart attack-like symptoms while trying to rescue the two boys in the water.
Ellison met Arrington shortly after he left the hospital, on the same beach where the rescue took place. They became fast friends and now maintain weekly contact.
Ellison still gets emotional talking about the incident. “We’re family now,” he said.
For his actions, Arrington recently received a Lifesaving Award from Georgia Electric Membership Corp., headquartered in Tucker.
Chris Stephens, CEO of Coweta-Fayette, said he was proud of Arrington but not surprised.
“Whether they are restoring power during inclement conditions or helping someone in need, lineworkers are always the first to assist. Dustin’s heroic effort is a perfect example of who linemen are, brave men and women who put others first.”
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.