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Marine saves swimmer’s life

By Cpl. K. A. Thompson | | August 19, 2005

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Eighteen years of training and experience, and the three rules of real estate may have given a Marine the knowledge he needed to save a young swimmer’s life after a boating accident that took place on Lake Keowee in Pickens, S.C., July 24.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steven Dancer, the officer-in-charge of the Nuclear Biological and Chemical section of Marine Aircraft Group 31, had just finished a five-month NBC course in Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., and was taking time out for a little rest and relaxation, when a day at the lake turned into a field rescue operation.

“I was visiting my family in Hendersonville, N.C., and we went on a boating trip on Lake Keowee,” Dancer said. “We went to a place called ‘the rock,’ that has an outcropping where kids can jump into the water from about 25-40 feet.”

The rock is a popular spot, and it was crowded with boats and people that day, according to Dancer. One person in that crowd was 17-year-old Kelly Casebere.

Casebere, a J.L. Mann High School senior, was spending the day boating on the lake when an accident severely damaged her leg and Dancer came to her rescue, according to Rick Casebere, Kelly’s father.

“Kelly was with two of her high school girlfriends and Mr. and Mrs. Bill McLendon, the parents of one of the girls,” Casebere said.

The girls were in the water a few feet from the McLendon’s boat, which had dropped them off at the rock’s surface, according to Casebere.

“While the girls jumped and swam, the parents in the boat were inflating a tube to be used later,” Casebere said. “When they noticed that their boat was drifting near the shore at the rocks surface, Mr. McLendon started the engine and slowly began to back away.”

While traveling in reverse, McLendon bumped a pontoon boat. After the passengers held the two boats apart, McLendon went in reverse and backed away from the pontoon at a high speed, according to Casebere.

“As the boat accelerated and turned, it backed over Kelly and his daughter Marie,” Casebere said. “Marie was able to dive below the boat on the starboard stern. As Kelly tried to swim away to the port side of the stern, the boat ran over her left leg.”

About the same time the boat backed away from the pontoon, Dancer was standing in the water and watching his cousin jump from the rock.

“My back was to the boat when I heard the engine racing and the sound of the screams,” Dancer said. “I just spun around and started swimming. Then I saw Kelly come up from the bottom of the boat.”

McLendon and Dancer pulled her into the boat. Once she was out of the water, Dancer applied a tourniquet with nylon ski rope that he found coiled on the deck of the boat.

“Between the two of us we got her up there,” Dancer said. “And from there I just went into auto-pilot. That’s the best way to describe it. I had her left side and I was saying in my mind and out loud ‘we need to get a tourniquet on this.’”

After Dancer had administered first aid, Dr. Stephen Yost, a family practitioner from Spartanburg, S.C. came along and helped transfer Kelly to another boat. Emergency Medical Services were contacted with a cell phone, and the boat raced to a dock where an ambulance, and eventually a helicopter, could reach her, according to Dancer.

When Kelly arrived in the Greenville Memorial Hospital trauma unit through air medical evacuation, her hemoglobin count was incredibly low, and without Dancer’s presence that day she may not have made it that far, according to McLendon.

“Kelly’s hemoglobin count was down to four,” McLendon said. “That’s one third of what it should have been. There’s no doubt that if it were not for Dancer’s actions, Kelly would not have survived this ordeal. He could not possibly have done more to reflect greater credit upon himself or the U.S. Marine Corps.”

Reacting to the tragedy required a level of professionalism and demanded calm, rational thinking, but Dancer credits Kelly with the true warrior’s spirit that ultimately determined her survival.

“Let me tell you, that girl is as hard as nails,” Dancer said. “I’d put her up against the best Marines any day. She was conscious from the time she was hit until the time we turned her over to the paramedics to wait on the life-flight, and clear up to the operating table in the trauma center.”

As for keeping his own presence of mind in a crisis situation and being able to help Kelly that day, Dancer has his own ideas of where true credit is due.

“A lot of people say it was Marine Corps training, and that’s probably some of it,” Dancer said. “That’s definitely where the knowledge came from. But I honestly believe God put me there and I was just his instrument to take the tragedy and turn it around into what’s going to become a positive thing, with Kelly’s spirit and determination.”

After several surgeries, Kelly has returned home and is on schedule to walk in October, an event Dancer does not want to miss.

“She was a top notch soccer player, and she’s already told me that when I come and visit in October we’re going for a run,” Dancer said. “I’m definitely going to be there. Through this experience I’ve gained a daughter and an extended family.”

Dancer continues to keep in close contact with the Casebere family, tracking Kelly’s healing process and giving his support, according to Casebere.

“Kelly’s most prized possession is the white Marine Corps Dress (cover) that Dancer gave to her,” Casebere said. “It is a constant reminder of the heroic yet compassionate caliber of the Marine Corps. When Kelly walks across the stage at graduation in June, I expect that Dancer will be there to share in our happiness.”

No matter what led Dancer to be in the waters of Lake Keowee - fate, divine providence, or experience - the knowledge and skills to practice lifesaving techniques were learned through Marine Corps training, and that’s a lesson to all Marines, according to Dancer.

“No matter what it’s for or where you are, take training seriously,” Dancer said. “We are the world’s finest and the nation’s guardians of freedom. Whether we are in Iraq or in the states, on or off duty, we need to be ready.”
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