Walt Marino, ’84, doesn’t sweat the small stuff anymore – not after he and his son spent a terrifying night treading water in the open ocean.
By Judy Creel, ’05, Pegasus magazine
Chilled, broken-hearted and utterly exhausted, Walt Marino, ’84, knew his life might end at any moment. As he floated alone in the darkness, drifting in the shark-infested waters for hours on end, one thought kept him going: He couldn’t let his daughter lose her brother and her father on the same night.
That afternoon, Sept. 6, 2008, had started as a fun outing for Marino and his children, Christopher, 12, and Angela, 14. As Marino and Christopher waded in the shallow water on the Smyrna side of Ponce Inlet, the deceptively calm surface masked the force of the outgoing tide. Suddenly the two were being swept out to sea, and Marino yelled “Call 911! Don’t come in the water!” to Angela as she watched helplessly from the jetty.
Marino and his son stayed together in the six-to-eight-foot waves, moving offshore with surprising speed. For Christopher, it was a game at first. Like many children with autism, he had been fascinated with water all his life and, for his own safety, his parents had taught him to swim as a toddler. Marino had later undergone lifeguard training for the same reason. Christopher also had no fear, another common trait. When the pair swam for a buoy and missed it, his only reaction was laughter.
Marino believes that Christopher’s autism saved both their lives, because Christopher remained fairly calm and didn’t climb on his father right away, which might have pulled them both under. “He didn’t freak out, so I didn’t freak out, and I was able to think,” Marino says. “I realized that I shouldn’t waste energy screaming at the rescue helicopters I could see, because they couldn’t hear me.”
The game ended for Christopher when jellyfish arrived, wrapping themselves around the Marinos like thick pieces of electric spaghetti. Although he rarely speaks, and then only in isolated words, Christopher screamed out in pain. Marino distracted him by yelling out Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase from the Disney movie Toy Story. “To infinity!” Marino shouted. “And beyond!” Christopher yelled back, pumping his small fist in the air.
“Christopher lives for two things: swimming and Disney movies,” Marino says.
As darkness fell and the waves pushed them apart, they repeated this exchange, Marino straining to hear as Christopher’s voice grew fainter, watching for the flash of his fist as he crested each swell. When Marino shouted out one last time and received no reply, he was sure his son was lost to him forever.
At home in Oviedo, Christopher’s mother, Robyn Bishop, ’84, had no idea anything had gone wrong during Marino’s visitation weekend. She received a call about 8 p.m. from the Volusia County beach patrol asking her to come to the beach to pick up Angela and her friends, two sisters. The officers did not offer much hope. They had never known anyone who survived in those circumstances. Bishop raced to the coast, where her maternal instincts screamed for her to stay and wait for her son, but she knew that the other girls’ mother would want them home and safe. She drove them back and settled in for the most disturbing night of her life.
A few hours into the ordeal, Marino’s sister, Linda Richter, ’86, called Father Jorge Torres at Most Precious Blood Catholic Church in Oviedo to ask him how she could tell her children that their cousin and uncle were gone. The priest asked if they had found their bodies, and she replied no. He responded that they were NOT gone, and that he was going to pray. He spread the word, and a prayer chain swung into action.
At the same time, Marino did some praying of his own. The seas calmed, and he floated on his back, both to conserve energy and to avoid splashing and attracting sharks in one of the shark bite capitals of the world. Marino envisioned that God was calling him home, but then he remembered, “God helps those who help themselves,” and he turned over and tried to swim a weak dog-paddle toward the lighthouse visible onshore. He spent the night conflicted, floating then swimming, not knowing what to do.
He reminisced about a recent visit to the Ponce Inlet museum and its moving display of refugee rafts that had washed up on Florida’s coast. He realized that everything, be it a beached whale, a raft or a human being, floats back with the incoming tide and eventually washes up onshore. He wondered when and where he would be found.
Then Marino thought about Angela, who had just started high school in the International Baccalaureate program and signed up for ballroom dancing lessons. He wanted to watch her graduate, watch her waltz, watch her grow up – and her picture in his mind gave him strength.
As the sun rose, Marino knew he wasn’t going to drown. Death, if it came, would be from exposure or dehydration. His thoughts turned to his son, and Christopher’s love of floating with his ears just below the surface of the water. Marino tried it and was amazed at the sounds of sea life all around him. By then he was at peace with the feel of the fish swimming along, brushing against him, and with the sounds of tails slapping and the water’s surface being broken.
The birds he saw at dawn’s first light gave him hope. And the light itself brought rescue. When some fishermen happened to glance his way, the sun glinted off the medallion of the Virgin Mary that he had slipped around his neck the morning before. They came to investigate and pulled in the biggest catch of their lives.<
After 12 hours in the water, eight miles from shore, Marino was saved. He called Bishop and told her, in a hoarse, almost unrecognizable voice, that Christopher was gone. He then climbed aboard a Coast Guard boat to await what he expected to be finding his son’s body. Incredulous at Marino’s survival, Coast Guard members told him few people lasted half an hour in conditions like those, never mind all night. In every 100 rescue missions, they told him, only five percent had a positive outcome. Against all odds, a couple of hours later, a helicopter spotted the boy floating on his back, just like his father. Unbeknownst to Christopher, he had done the best thing possible to stay visible to those searching from above.
Scenes of Marino waving from a gurney, shouting “God bless the Coast Guard!” flooded the news stations on Sunday morning, as everyone reacted to the story of a miracle. Christopher was treated for shock, hypothermia and jellyfish stings at Halifax Health Medical Center and released, and the family appeared on NBC’s Today Show and on CNN, where Dr. Sanjay Gupta was fascinated with Christopher and his autism.
Christopher and his parents became heroes of sorts to other parents of children with autism, many of whom identified with the characteristics Christopher displayed.
“We’ve had a wonderful response from everybody,” Bishop says. “Everybody was so happy for the outcome.”
A publisher has contacted Marino about doing a children’s book about a special-needs child surviving, not letting his disability get in the way. But Marino is hesitant to profit commercially from a miracle, he says. If the deal goes through, he plans to set up a long-term trust for Christopher’s care with the proceeds.
As a positive response to this experience, Bishop would like to see more swimming programs for people with disabilities. Teri Daly, director of the UCF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, where Christopher and his parents are clients, couldn’t agree more.
“Drowning is the number one cause of death for children with autism. Knowing how to swim – for all children – is a critical life skill in a state like Florida, where lakes, retention ponds and water-filled ditches are everywhere,” she says. “Because Christopher loves water and is a strong swimmer, the ocean was a reassuring environment for him, even when he drifted away from his father.”
In fact, the day after he left the hospital, Christopher was ready for a swim in his mother’s pool. When she asked him what he had seen in the ocean, Christopher didn’t answer at first, but he finally spoke a rare full sentence: “It was dark.” So while they may never know exactly what happened to Christopher, Marino and Bishop, both CPAs who studied accounting at UCF, say that they appreciate each day a little more now, knowing what they could have lost.
A month after the ordeal, the jellyfish stings had healed. Marino’s voice cracked as he told the story of losing his son, then finding him again. He clutched the small oval medallion dangling from a silver chain around his neck, vowing that he’ll never take it off. He watched Christopher dive for rings at the bottom of the pool at the YMCA in Oviedo, a regular ritual for the pair. And he smiled as he made plans to watch his daughter’s first ballroom dance.
This story first appeared in Pegasus magazine, November/December 2008.