WEST YARMOUTH, Mass. (MCT) - Colonial Acres Beach was packed and noisy early Thursday afternoon under the brilliant July Fourth sun.
Three college buddies, spending the holiday with friends at a nearby beach house, stood knee-deep in the surf, watching swimmers frolic in the wind-whipped waves, when they noticed two boys and a man fighting to stay afloat as they were tugged outward by strong currents.
Then the friends heard the calls for help, and instinct kicked in. Off came the ball caps and sunglasses as the three dove in and began churning their way to the struggling swimmers.
"It was just instinct," Chris Jones said Friday. The 23-year-old Mashpee resident and his friend Kyle Campana, 22, of Boxboro, took turns hefting a clingy John Smith Howell toward shore. Once they reached the shallows, a woman loaded the shaken 11-year-old onto her boogie board and took him to the safety of the beach.
Meanwhile fellow college friend Billy Doherty dragged John's 20-year-old cousin, Denzel Smith, out of the surf and onto the rock jetty.
Doherty, 22, of Stoneham, swam back out to retrieve Smith's 12-year-old brother, Kendrick Davis, and didn't notice Smith jumping back in the water behind him to join the rescue. It was a nearly fatal mistake for Smith, who was so exhausted he was unable to stay afloat.
Chris Steinkrauss, a 37-year-old New York City teacher in town to visit his mother, saw Smith sink beneath the surface. He swam out to save him but wasn't able to hoist the lean 6-foot-tall man above the waves. Soon Jones, Doherty and Campana joined the effort, and they were able to get Smith onto the rocks.
"He looked dead," Campana recalled. "He was limp. He wasn't breathing and there was foam coming from his mouth."
Others then moved the seemingly lifeless Smith to a nearby beach, where a Connecticut woman performed chest compressions.
Meanwhile Donna Jo Murphy, a 24-year-old Nashua, N.H., resident and another member of the college group, watched the rescue from shore.
When Murphy saw Smith's body dragged from the water, she thought she might be able to help revive him, since she had been certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation for a job as a nanny.
Murphy swam across an estuary to get to the beach beyond the jetty. "He had no pulse and his lips were purple," Murphy said. "I started to do mouth-to-mouth. It seemed like an eternity, but I think he started to breathe on the fifth breath. While I was doing it I stayed focused but afterward I was pretty shaky."
Yarmouth Fire Department paramedics brought Smith to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. From there, he was transferred to Boston Medical Center, where he was upgraded from critical to stable condition as of Friday night.
A CAT scan Friday showed his brain was functioning properly, according to his aunt Chanel Smith, the mother of John Smith Howell.
A breathing tube was removed Friday night so he was able to speak, she said.
Thursday's near drowning wasn't Smith's first brush with death, his aunt said. He nearly died after being hit in the chest in a drive-by shooting at a party in Dorchester on April 26. Two other men were injured as well.
Chanel Smith said she and her children had been vacationing at the Green Harbor Resort. Crystal Davis came with her sons, Eric, Kendrick and Denzel, to visit for the holiday. All are from Roxbury.
Eric is not believed to have been in the water with his brothers and cousin. He ran to the pool at Green Harbor Resort to alert his aunt to the water rescue at the beach.