OCEAN CITY — As a certified EMT, Brian Wheelock is used to dealing with tragedy. But a recent event during a family vacation to the beach shook his resolve and left him questioning whether he could continue.
On July 10, Wheelock, 43, of Parsippany, Morris County, was enjoying a few moments of solitude near the 10th Street beach after his three children and six nieces and nephews went back to the family’s vacation home where 20 of them were staying. At 6:21 p.m., his wife texted him to come back to the family’s vacation home and help with dinner. While packing up his belongings, Wheelock said he heard someone yelling about 30 feet to his right. He turned to see two people in the water, one of whom seemed to be floating “but not doing good,” he said.
Wheelock started walking in the direction of the distressed swimmers — a son and his father — when a wave lifted a “totally submerged” body into view. Wheelock said he directed two people to call 911 immediately. He and Eric Gerber raced into the water and, along with the son, pulled the father, Heriberto Roman, on to the beach.
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“His eyes were wide open, but he wasn’t breathing and his body was lifeless,” Wheelock said.
Gerber, a pastor from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, began praying aloud while Wheelock initiated CPR on Roman. A nearby police officer and doctor joined the resuscitation efforts until emergency responders arrived.
“Eric’s praying was really needed at the moment,” Wheelock said. “It kept us all calm during a really intense time.”
Roman, 46, of Ivyland, Pennsylvania, was breathing and had a pulse before he was taken to Shore Medical Center in Somers Point, police said. He was later transferred to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus, in Atlantic City, where he was listed in critical condition and on life support.
“Eric and I went to the hospital the next day and met with his family,” Wheelock said. “The next day his wife texted me, ‘He passed.’”
Roman was pronounced dead July 12.
The initial investigation indicates Roman did not know how to swim and entered an unguarded beach along with his son and 12-year-old daughter, police said. At the time, Hurricane Chris was off the coast of North Carolina and caused strong rip currents in the Atlantic Ocean.
The news of Roman’s death shook Wheelock.
A heat wave that drives you to the shore, warm water temperature that draws you to the surf …
“I haven’t been myself,” he said Friday evening. “Especially the 48 hours after it happened. I tried to keep a good face because we were on vacation and I didn’t want it to affect (the family). But I couldn’t escape to process it all.”
Wheelock said he had a few moments where he questioned whether he should remain an EMT. He credited his wife, Pam, with easing his uncertainty.
“My wife told me, ‘You’d help anyway, so you might as well stay certified,’” he said.
More than a week after hearing of Roman’s death, Wheelock has had time to take in everything that happened. Each time he retells the story, he delivers a message about water safety.
“People need to know (about beach warnings) and need to educate themselves before going in the water,” Wheelock said. “They need to be careful and respect the power of the ocean.”