Lost in the Waves
Credit: John Loomis
All the way from Clearwater, out of the skies above northeastern Florida, the Jayhawk helicopter rides 100 feet above the water. It's got a bright orange tail and white-striped body, like the fish from Finding Nemo. At 300 feet the trained men aboard can see gulls hitting the surface, but they're flying even lower this morning, as low as they can go, because they're looking for a 12-year-old boy.

The helicopter goes into a right-hand orbit, circling once, then again, initially lowering to 50 feet. The flight mechanic had seen the dark-brown hair and white face in the tide line, had seen a body floating there, bobbing. Tom Emerick, a rescue swimmer, is already wearing a shorty wetsuit and puts on a black mask with a snorkel.

Lowered 20 feet down by a thick hoist cable, Emerick hits the water feetfirst. He swims toward Christopher, the boy's small pale eyes staring at him, unblinking. Emerick signals for the helicopter to send the basket down. It's 9:15 am, three miles from where his father had been discovered two hours earlier.

"Hi, how you doing, my name is Tom," Emerick says.

Christopher says nothing, barely makes a move – just watches as Emerick pulls him into the stainless-steel basket. "Don't climb out of it, okay, buddy?" he shouts. It's deafening beneath the whir. The rotor wash is coming down so hard that it stings them, nearly suffocates them.

Christopher rides up in the basket silently, looking down at Emerick still in the water, studying him like a piece of string.

In the stomach of the helicopter, Emerick wraps a wool blanket over Christopher's shoulders, checks his breathing, his pulse, has him track his index finger with his eyes. He asks him if he wants something to drink, and when Christopher doesn't answer, he makes a motion with his hands to emulate taking a sip from a cup, and Christopher nods. Sitting on a bench in the helicopter, he shivers, freckles beneath the dark hair. His skin is warm; he's slightly hypothermic. But other than the jellyfish stings, there doesn't appear to be anything the matter with him.