By the time I pulled back into the parking lot after lunch at home, I knew something was wrong.

The first sign was the ambulance racing out towards the hospital with full lights and sirens.

The second sign was catching a glimpse of the crowd of guests on the bridge slowly walking back in the direction of the pool. You can’t see the pool from the parking lot, but it was obvious it had been cleared. While we would empty the pool every couple of weeks on a lost child search, the combination of an empty pool and ambulance didn’t bode well.

But accidents happen, this wasn’t the first ambulance we’d called, and as I exited my car and started towards the entrance I was more excited than anything else; wanting to know what I missed.

It was only when I saw the faces of my coworkers and the guests as I walked in that I realized something terrible had happened.

A kid died in our pool.

Every now and then we have moments in our lives where disparate events coalesce into a coherent inspiration. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about my life in emergency services. A month ago I had to take an EMT refresher class to transfer my certification from Colorado to Arizona. Two weeks ago I gave a presentation on “The Firefighter’s Guide to Risk Management”, where I played off my past as a rescue worker to talk about Enterprise Risk Management concepts. Last week I finished reading “Playing for Real: Stories from Rocky Mountain Rescue”, an excellent book by Mark Scott-Nash, a friend from Rocky Mountain Rescue.

Those three events made me realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been to have some amazing opportunities and experiences. For nearly 20 years now I’ve bounced around nearly every rescue job in the books- some paid, some volunteer, all professional. I’ve driven fire trucks, worked the ambulance in the inner city, flown on helicopters, patrolled one of the top ski resorts in the US, responded to Katrina, started IVs while hanging off cliff faces, SCUBA dived for bodies, and spent thousands of hours training for nearly any possible crisis.

All of these adventures started in high school with my first non-fast-food job.

Graydon pool is a mix between a man-made lake and municipal pool located in the New York suburb of Ridgewood, New Jersey. About 100 yards on each side in a vaguely rectangular shape, its sandy bottom is surrounded by an artificial beach. Originally a small pond, it was later excavated to its current size and massive filtration systems added. Visibility is still a pond-like few feet and we’d regularly row around in a small boat to drop chlorine tablets and other chemicals to keep it sanitary. A long buoy line snakes through the middle dividing the 0-4 foot deep shallow end from the 13+ foot deep end, equipped with a high dive, two concrete resting platforms, and a small lap area.

During summers Graydon is the social center for Ridgewood. On a sunny day about a dozen lifeguards perched on 7 foot stands would watch over hundreds of swimmers of all ages.

I was 17 when I started working there as a lifeguard and couldn’t imagine a better job. The pay was good ($35 a day my first year), the nightly parties better (thanks to a mix of high school and college-age staff), and at times I felt more like a professional volleyball player than a public servant.

I can’t remember exactly when the drowning occurred, but think it was either in 1988 or 1989. Graydon was often the host for youth groups from other towns looking for a change from the traditional lap pool. I think the group that day was from Patterson, a low-income town whose school was featured in the film Stand by Me. While I was out at lunch a group of kids jumped off the main platform in the deep end, and started swimming about 30 yards towards the concrete T-shaped dock that held the olympic-height low and high diving boards. Once they hit the other side, they realized one of their friends hadn’t made it and quickly notified the guard at the diving area.

I’m bad with names, and this was nearly 20 years ago, so while I remember what she looked like I can’t remember my coworker’s name. She was one of the few employees over 21 (that’s the kind of thing a 17 year old remembers) and on summer break from college.

She immediately blew three short blasts on her whistle- the emergency signal for a rescue- and dove into the pool. Off-duty lifeguards would swarm over the area as everyone in stands would start clearing the entire pool. When enough guards hit the water in that area, we’d switch from a spot search to a more organized sweep that I later realized resembles an avalanche search. Side by side, the lifeguards would tread water in a line, dive to the 13-foot bottom, swim forward a few strokes, and start all over again. If we didn’t have a search area, or enough time passed, we’d grab SCUBA tanks, lay a few search lines, and start a dive search. Not that any of us were even certified to dive.

But based on what others later told me the search never got to that point. Another female guard, in the next stand over, jumped in to assist and they quickly located the boy. Piecing the story together, he’d quietly slipped under the water without a struggle while swimming across with his friends. The two female guards found him very quickly and started mouth to mouth while swimming him to shore for CPR and to transfer him to the ambulance for a short trip to the Valley Hospital Emergency Room.

That boy, high school at the oldest, never came back. The two guards were emotionally devastated and the death was a pall over the entire staff.

Initially there was a suspicion that his heart stopped due to drugs, but considering the time and place I don’t know if that was just the passive-aggressive racism of upper-class Ridgewood. However, what seems certain based on his friends’ reports is that he just silently drowned, and with hundreds of people in the pool on that hot day there was no chance of the guard seeing him go down.

I might have some of the facts wrong after nearly 20 years, but this should be mostly accurate.

Those summers at Graydon Pool launched a lifetime of adventures I never anticipated. When I look back, as I’ve been doing more lately, I realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been to have these opportunities. I never felt like I was saving the world- if I wasn’t there someone else would take my place- but I was definitely living an adventure. Sometimes physically grueling, more often incredibly boring, and punctuated by moments of pure adrenaline.

I also realize how poor a job I’ve done of capturing these moments. I have nearly no pictures until recent years, and, thanks to a terrible memory, can only recall a small fraction of my experiences. I’m only getting older, so it’s time to start digging through those memories and pulling out what remnants of the stories still rattle around my vacuous skull before they’re gone forever.

I’m not writing these to make any particular point or push any sort of “message”. If you learn something from them or get any entertainment value, more power to ya. I’m just one guy who’s had some cool experiences (and some not so cool, but interesting) and wants to write them down.

On the off chance some of you find these stories more interesting than the usual ramblings of a rescue has-been, I’ll try and avoid the boring ones…