Location: Florida Keys
Date: September 7, 1987
"I guess you could say we were childhood sweethearts," says Walter Benjamin. "I first slept with her when I was six years old, when my little brother was born. My folks took me over and dumped me in her bed. So I had to marry her."
After nearly fifty years of marriage, Walter Benjamin was even more in love with his wife, Joanne, than when he first shared her bed years ago. Besides their love for each other, the couple also shared a love for the ocean. On September 7, 1987, as they always did, sixty-eight-year-old Walter and sixty-nine-year-old Joanne planned to spend Labor Day weekend fishing and scuba diving in the Florida Keys.
Before going in the water, Walter and Joanne put on their diving gear and checked each other's tanks. Their custom was for each other to fall backward into the water off opposite sides of their boat, then swim to the mooring line in front and dive together.
When Walter arrived at their rendezvous, he found Joanne laying facedown in the water with her snorkel in her mouth instead of her regulator. Walter swam over to Joanne and handed her the regulator. "I can't breathe," she said. Then Joanne passed out. Walter was scared to death as he swam back to the boat with Joanne in his arms. She was absolutely limp, and Walter didn't know how he was going to get her back on deck. "Getting around the boat was easy," he recalls. "Getting her into the boat was next to impossible."
Walter yelled for help. His cries were heard by Lauri MacLaughlin and Bill Green, who were on patrol in a Marine Sanctuary boat, fifty yards away. The pair motored over to Walter. While Bill radioed for help, Lauri jumped into the water and helped Walter lift Joanne up on the boat. Walter stripped off Joanne's diving gear and Lauri checked for breathing and a pulse. Joanne had neither, and Lauri initiated CPR.
Nearby, Joe Marzella was snorkeling with his wife and brother, Mark, when he noticed a commotion on the Benjamins' boat. He climbed into his boat and looked through his binoculars. It appeared the people on the boat were in trouble. "Do you need any help?" Joe shouted through cupped hands. "Yes," Bill yelled back. "We need help with CPR."
Joe swam to Mark and told him that help was needed on a nearby boat. The brothers swam to the Benjamins' boat and climbed aboard. From their experience over the years as firefighters/EMTs, they realized the seriousness of the situation and knew that Joanne's chances of survival were slim. "All I could think," recalls Joe, "was that this poor man had lost his wife right there in front of us, right before our eyes."
Joe swam to the Marine Sanctuary boat for a tank of oxygen, which they used to ventilate Joanne. Then he suggested they get to shore as quickly as possible. The three boats headed in as Lauri and Joe continued to administer CPR. Joanne had been without a pulse or breath for nearly ten minutes. "I thought that I may have lost her," recalls Walter. "I didn't think about it as much getting her into the boat as I did on that terrifying ride to shore."
Moments from the end of their twenty-minutes ride, the oxygen being pumped through Joanne's system started having a positive effect, and she regained a pulse. The boats docked at the marina where rescue units awaited their arrival. Joanne was transported to a nearby hospital and treated for cardiac arrest. She was released ten days later. A surgically implanted pacemaker now allows her to lead a more healthy life.
Since Joanne's rescue, the Benjamins have become friends with the Marzella brothers and remain forever grateful to them for helping to save Joanne's life. The memory of that day still haunts Walter. "I was so scared," he says. "I still get all choked up when I remember what happened." "I am so lucky to be alive today," says Joanne. "Not a day goes by that I don't think how lucky I am that all these people were around me at the right time."