KINGSTON, R.I. – October 13, 2010 – Patrick McKiernan has been enjoying the surf at East Matunuck for as long as he can remember. So on Oct. 2 while visiting his grandmother at her beachfront home, he took advantage of some good swells on a sunny early fall day.
But the ocean was also in a furious mood that day, and Matunuck was churning with riptides.
The University of Rhode Island freshman chemical engineering student had only been in the water with his boogie board for about an hour when a man, panting from fatigue, shouted to him for help. A riptide was pulling out a family member and he couldn’t swim back. In fact, three family members had been caught in the same rip, but two made it back after an exhausting swim.
Jennifer Bilodeau of Springfield, Mass. said her husband, Jason, had swum to shore, but was too exhausted to help her cousin, Ariel Villegas. Jason ran to McKiernan to see if he could help.
“Patrick (McKiernan) went right out with his boogie board,” Jennifer Bilodeau said. “He would disappear behind the big waves as he swam out. Patrick is a small boy, and he was half Ariel’s size. Patrick was so unselfish. He put his life on the line.”
Her voice cracking with emotion, she said the family’s first visit to East Matunuck would have turned disastrous without McKiernan. About 40 family members were on hand to enjoy the beach that day.
McKiernan, 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighing 135 pounds, said he never hesitated in swimming out to Villegas, who stands 5 feet, 5 inches, and weighs 155 pounds.
“I just turned around to take a wave, and I saw a guy standing on the shore, waving me in,” McKiernan said. “I rode a wave all the way in, and he asked if I could help two of his friends caught in a riptide. As I got there, one of the two remaining men had made it back to shore, but the other one was still out there.”
McKiernan said Villegas was at least 100 feet from shore and couldn’t get free of the ocean’s pull.
“I jumped into the riptide to get to him faster, and when I got to within 10 to 15 feet of him, he was shouting, ‘Help me, help, help, save me.’”
When he got to within 5 feet, McKiernan pushed his boogie board to Villegas, and Villegas climbed on. McKiernan asked the exhausted swimmer to kick his feet to help him, but Villegas was too tired.
Villegas, a Westfield, Mass. resident said his wife of six months and cousins were crying as they watched him in distress. And he began praying, asking God for forgiveness and that if he died, that he be granted eternal life in heaven. His 2-year-old son was taken from beach so he would be spared watching the potentially fatal events unfold.
“I was in the Navy, I know the ocean, and I am good swimmer, but I wasn’t aware of riptides,” Villegas said. “I went in up to my waist, swam a little and then realized I was getting pulled out. Jason swam to shore, and my other cousin Donny made it to shore. But I was going out farther, and as I was saying my prayers, I saw Patrick coming out. Now I had hope and I was going to fight no matter how much my arms were hurting me.”
Once Villegas was on the boogie board, McKiernan would swim behind him and push him along with a wave. Once the wave broke, McKiernan would swim to the front of the boogie board and begin towing Villegas again.
“Other than Patrick, there was no one who could have saved me, including myself,” Villegas said.
It took McKiernan about 15 minutes to get the two of them to safety.
“I swam out of the riptide and by the time we reached shore, I think I had swum some 200 feet,” McKiernan said. “When I became tired, I turned on my back and just kept kicking. This was a major riptide where you really couldn’t tell where it stopped.”
Clad in a wetsuit and fins, McKiernan was confident when he started out, but then one fin got knocked off. “Still I didn’t think about it, I just went in. Every single summer since I was born, I have been going down there two or three times a week. I definitely knew how to get him out of trouble.”
But he acknowledged that it was a lot more tiring than he expected.
“Right as I got onto the shore with Ariel, family members were giving me handshakes, hugs, and constantly thanking me. There were lots of tears of happiness.”
URI student Patrick McKiernan (third from left) saved the life of Ariel Villegas (left) on Oct. 2 at East Matunuck Beach. Villegas and relatives Jason Bilodeau (second from left) and Donny Berthiaume (right) were swimming when they got caught in a riptide that pulled them out to deep waters. Photo courtesy of Casandra Korcak