July 13, 2013

Heroic swim leads to family's rescue on Chesapeake

A man braves currents, storm-tossed waves, stinging nettles and jellyfish to save his family.

The Washington Post

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Siblings John and Contessa Riggs, photographed Friday at her Washington home, were fishing with her son, their niece and their father Tuesday when their skiff overturned.

Washington Post photo/ Jahi Chikwendiu

But it was on them quickly. "The boat took two or three over the bow," he said. "Then it started coming over the stern. From that . . . it just went right out from underneath of us. . . . It was shockingly fast."

Contessa Riggs said only her son had a life jacket on, so she grabbed two more and gave one to her niece. She got hers partially on before they were all in the water. Everyone clung to the boat. Her brother and father both dived under the vessel to retrieve their life jackets.

It was about 7 p.m. Thirty minutes later, the storm hit.

It was a pretty big storm," she said. "There was lightning striking around us, hitting the water. . . . It was just horrible. My niece was crying. My son was crying."

They worried about who might rescue them. She was not expected back in Washington until the next morning. And they were growing increasingly concerned about the children.

"Both of the kids were really cold," she said. "Conrad, my son, was just shivering and shivering and saying, 'I'm cold. I'm cold.' "

And now that it was getting dark, any other barges that came by were liable to run them down.

John Franklin Riggs knew that plenty of fuel barges traveled the sound. But they were often so illuminated for people to see them that they couldn't see beyond their lights, he said. Plus, an overturned Carolina Skiff would probably not show up on a barge's radar, he said.

"Even if they did see us, by the time they'd seen us, they wouldn't have been able to turn or stop," he said. "That would have been terrible. That would have been the end of the scene right there."

The adults had already decided that it was too far to swim for shore, but John Franklin Riggs could see by his sister's face that she was really worried about the children.

"When it really got to the desperate hour, I asked her . . . 'Do you want me to try and make a swim?' " he recalled. "And she said, 'No, but yeah.' "

"With that, I told her she owed me a pair of shoes, kicked off my shoes and headed to shore," he said. It was then about 8:30 p.m.

Five hours later, after everyone had clambered aboard a rescue boat, Contessa Riggs spotted her brother, who had ridden out with the rescuers.

"Johnny Riggs!" she yelled. "I love you! I told you you were my . . . hero!"

On Friday, he said he still wanted replacements for his old shoes.

"They were Rockports," he said. "They were nice shoes."


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