Naval officer saves child and man after falling into Elizabeth River

Norfolk-based Sailor Saves Lives during Evening Run
Posted at 4:10 PM, Jun 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-23 22:28:40-04

NORFOLK, Va. - A Naval officer happened to be in the right place at the right time for a harrowing rescue.

On June 9, Lt. John Miller, 31, was running along the Elizabeth River Trail when he noticed a man and a boy in a wheelchair near the edge of the seawall. A few minutes later, they were gone.

“I turned the corner and proceeded north,” Miller said. “I was about 10-15 yards along the length of the cruise ship when I heard a splash. I turned and the man and the child were gone, leaving the empty wheelchair. I sprinted back to the edge and initially saw only the man, who appeared to be floundering.”

Without hesitation, Miller jumped into the water – a 10-foot drop. Moments before, he had asked a bystander to call 911 for help.

“In the moment, I didn’t even consider an alternative,” said Miller. “Treading and swimming with another person is difficult, but I was in the water before I knew it. Perhaps, I should have paused and located the nearest ladder or a life ring, but I knew that everything was time critical. I cannot actually process the feeling I had; I just felt an immense pressure to act. I knew he could not survive the water with his disability, so I had no choice. I did not know the water skills of his guardian and I could not be sure of any possible injuries or trauma to either of them. I had to act.”

Related: Swimmer, lifeguard rescues child from drowning at local beach

Once in the river, Miller pulled the man and the boy to the seawall. Covered in barnacles, Miller said the seawall was impossible to grip. Instead, he grabbed a line from a cutaway bumper and wrapped it around his right arm.

“I had the man wrap his legs around me with the child safely in between us as I was concerned about the man being overly fatigued or cramping,” he said. “I assumed that we would wait out rescue.”

Miller, the man and the child then swam in tandem to the ladder 10-15 yards away.

“The woman who called 911 brought the wheelchair down the pier and we were all out the water by the time the police arrived,” said Miller.

Miller says the real hero was the child’s caretaker, who immediately jumped in, then got help from others in the vicinity.

“If one person is missing from that chain of action, it may have turned out badly,” Miller said. “At the beginning of my military career, now Major Clayton Jarolimek, USMC, said to always place yourself at the point of friction, where you can maximize your influence on the outcome. I try to do that every day in everything that I do. It does not change when I take off my uniform, go home, and enter my local community. At that moment, the point of friction was in the water, so into the water I went.”

The man and the boy wanted to remain anonymous for this story.