Updated: Tuesday, August 22, 2017, 5:09 PM
Pete Peterson had nothing left in the tank except the saltwater he’d swallowed each time the ocean pulled him under.
Rough surf and a relentless rip current had sapped all the strength from Peterson’s limbs, and the Cape May shoreline was more than a football field away.
He was stuck in something he could not overpower or outmaneuver. It was around 5:45 p.m. Friday. He thought the final seconds of his life were ticking away.
“One of the things they say about a rip current is, you want to swim horizontal to the beach to get out of it,” Peterson said. “I did that, but I wasn’t getting out of it. It was still pulling me out.
“My arms and legs at some point just didn’t have any more energy. I just floated on my back, and it continued to pull me out.”
Peterson, 43, a vice president at Bellevue Communications Group and a veteran political operative for the Delaware County Republican Party, doesn’t remember much after that.
But the dramatic rescue by local firefighters and lifeguards – and the Coast Guard photo of the human chain they formed to save him – made weekend headlines around the country, and even in the United Kingdom.
The swimmer who nearly drowned wasn’t identified in those reports, but Peterson agreed to speak to the Inquirer and Daily News to warn others of the dangers of rip currents – and to publicly thank the Cape May Fire Department and Beach Patrol for acting so quickly.
“My four children have their dad today because of their rapid response,” he said, “because I wouldn’t have lasted much longer.”
Peterson, a decent swimmer who is training for a half-marathon, ran into the ocean after one relative in knee-level water got swept out and two others went in to save him. The trio got pulled toward a jetty, and a large wave sent them back toward shore, but Peterson apparently got caught on the other side of the rip current.
Joshua Vandermark, 26, a Cape May firefighter, was one of the first rescuers on the scene at Beach and Philadelphia Avenues. He and another firefighter arrived about a minute after the emergency call went out.
“We used the riptide to our advantage to swim out quickly,” said Vandermark, who had just completed his first year with the fire department the day before. “In probably about 30 seconds, it ripped us about 100 yards out.”
The firefighters’ lieutenant pointed from the beach to where Peterson had last been seen. They followed his calls for help once they got closer.
“We got to him right when we needed to get to him,” Vandermark said. “He didn’t think he was going to make it.”
Vandermark and his colleague wrapped a buoy around Peterson to keep him afloat and got him to control his breathing. He estimated that they were about 150 to 175 yards out.
“We were trying to get across to him that he wasn’t going to die,” Vandermark said.
They kept Peterson above water as a large team of lifeguards and firefighters formed a human chain to bring him in.
“It was a herculean effort,” Peterson said. “Probably 25 or 30 people forming a chain. It was just incredible.”
Peterson said he hopes the ordeal will serve as a cautionary tale for other families at the Jersey Shore, that a rogue wave can pull you out even if you’re just rinsing off in shallow water. He said the surf was rough that day, but nothing like how it appears in the Coast Guard photo of the human-chain rescue.
“It shows how quickly things can change in 15 minutes,” he said. “Freak things can happen.”