By Justin Swanson | LB Indy
Three days before Christmas, Chad Thompson, 28, tucked his surfboard under his arm and walked down the stairs to Agate Street Beach. Just above the sand, he stalled to engage the view, offhandedly appraising swell conditions while monitoring fellow surfers’ fare. Thompson watched a young man take off. The man rode a wave very nearly to its conclusion before submitting to its whims, taking him head first into the water. As Thompson noted the sprawl of the rolling ocean, a clearing of the break, he saw in terror a treacherous rock just ahead of the surfer’s dive. He waited. Precious moments passed away until he sprung into action.
Thompson charged the water from the stairway, no longer thinking, no longer feeling. He arrived at the rock and began fishing for a body. He perforated the water repeatedly, plunging arms, grasping hands, when suddenly the surfer’s body floated to the surface face down.
Still in a state of instinctual action, Thompson grabbed the body and flipped the man over, finding him blue in the face. Thompson pulled the man to shore.
Meanwhile, out on the ocean, surfing buddies and former lifeguards David Spangler and brothers Morgan and Nolan Plant watched Thompson’s inspired rescue unfold in creeping horror. The moment they saw Thompson pull their comrade’s body towards the shore, they too sprung towards the beach, paddling madly and of a single-mindedness: to save their friend’s life.
Neal Hruby, 27, was vacationing in Laguna Beach with his family for Christmas. The Hruby family originally moved to Laguna in 2003, allowing Neal to graduate from Laguna Beach High School in 2004. It was only of late that the family split for other cities. Neal flew in from Chicago, sister Bryce came in from Arcata, while parents Randy and Diane traveled from Missouri. The near decade the Hrubys spent in Laguna was enough to cultivate a sense of home.
Thompson dragged Hruby’s unresponsive body from the crashing waves and onto the dry sand. He motioned for help, urging a call to 911. Out of the water, Hruby began to cough and breath, albeit with pain, vomiting sea water. Morgan Plant was the first of Neal’s ex-lifeguard friends to arrive, with his brother and Spangler soon to follow. Hruby had a three-inch gash behind his ear, near the base of his skull.
Lying face up on the sand, awaiting the arrival of the emergency response team, Hruby raised his hand into view to find his pinkie finger sticking out at an unnatural angle.
“I think there’s something wrong with my finger,” he said to his friends, clearly unaware of the real peril he faced.
Paramedics swiftly evacuated Hruby from the beach, transporting him to Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach before he was transferred again to Mission Viejo. The gash required 11 staples, but ultimately Hruby suffered a cranial hemorrhage and bruising, a skull fracture, a dislocated finger and fractured ribs.
The men were surfing during low tide, noted a lifeguard who responded to the call and declined to be identified. Thompson mentioned never before seeing rocks in the area where Hruby was injured. Marine Safety Lt. Kai Bond said that Agate Street Beach is “notorious for constant sand shifts that could cause rocks to reappear.”
During Hruby’s first day in the hospital, he underwent CAT scans every six to eight hours. Since then, Hruby has been in and out of the hospital before stabilizing to the point where he can rest at home. Doctors tell him his brain and body functions are normal, though since his injury he has lost 13 pounds and a temporary loss of hearing in his left ear due to residual fluid. The effect is disorienting and Hruby has a hard time keeping balance, for which he will undergo rehabilitation in Chicago.
“We are truly blessed as we all know a few inches either way or a few seconds more in the water and we could be in real trouble,” Diane Hruby wrote in an email to friends that described her son’s rescuer as the family’s Christmas guardian angel. She too notes the mutual ethic the watermen have, “At the end of the day, they take care of each other.”
“I was kind of scared,” Thompson admits. “I didn’t know what to do next.”
Thompson, a painting contractor who grew up in Capo Beach, describes an adrenaline rush that guided him through the action.
“Anytime I see someone in trouble, I am willing to help.”
“I don’t really remember anything,” Hruby says. “An hour before is blurry. I remember kissing a girl on the stairs.”
He is thankful for his friends and for the good Samaritan that saved him.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” he explains. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t remember anything”
Hruby is in remarkably optimistic spirits which surface through his evident pain.
He lightheartedly delivers a platitude, “Every day is a little adventure.”