South Miami-Dade Capt. Lee Hartman, who works for TowBoatU.S., recently took top honors nationally for saving a life at Black Point Marina. Here is the harrowing story as provided by the company:
BANG, followed by a splash, was all the towboat captain heard.
Was it a crocodile... or something else?
It was then, while he was at the helm filing out paperwork on that early summer evening last July, that Lee Hartman got an eerie feeling.
The day had been routine. Hartman had received a call for a disabled 40-foot Silverton motor vessel. Bad fuel was suspect. Aboard were a captain and owner. After an uneventful hour of towing the Silverton back to Black Point Marina, Hartman pulled alongside for the final stage of the tow and deftly took the big Silverton into a hip tow, easing the big vessel gently alongside the fuel dock, holding position against the outgoing current.
While securing the vessel, all three — Capt. Hartman, the Silverton’s captain, and owner — noticed one of three local crocodiles feasting on fish heads and other scraps being tossed from the fish-cleaning station about 50 feet away.
As he began filling out his paperwork at the towboat’s console, Captain Hartman heard that bang, followed by the splash. Initially, he and the neighboring vessel’s captain didn’t think much about it, reasoning it was just the crocodile thrashing around with a fish head in its grip. But after about 30 seconds, that eerie feeling came over Hartman, so he asked the Silverton’s captain where the owner was. A scan of the decks and bridge didn’t reveal anyone, so the Silverton’s captain rushed below while Hartman checked the dock.
Again, nothing. Both surmised now that the owner had fallen overboard.
Black Point Marina gets its name from the nearby canal, Black Creek, that feeds into the waters of the lagoon and marina, making it much darker than Biscayne Bay. As the sun dropped below the horizon, Hartman and the captain called out for the missing man. The loss of sunlight was going to make it very difficult to see anything.
Hartman also knew the current was running out of the marina, so he began looking in front of both boats and saw nothing. Frantic but in a systematic fashion, he then checked between the tied-up vessels and asked the Silverton’s captain to check between his vessel and the dock.
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At this point, the splash was now about a minute old when Hartman went to the last possible place — the stern of the tied-up vessels. Jumping onto his towboat’s engine bracket, he bent low, submerging his upper body while sweeping is arm through the inky-black waters.
Within moments he felt a shirt, and began pulling. The owner was underwater, unconscious, underneath the Silverton’s dive platform, pinned by the outgoing current against the transom and running gear. Hartman and the Silverton’s captain, along with two fishermen, were able to drag the owner up onto the dive platform.
As he prepared to give CPR, Hartman saw the man was breathing faintly and had a pulse, so they turned him on his side so he could cough up the water, still unconscious. A few tense minutes later, the ambulance and fire rescue responded. While strapped to a stretcher, the owner came to and his vital signs improved.
Once things calmed down a bit — the man was rushed to the hospital, where he spent a week recovering from a heart attack — some of the local fire-rescue crew were about to leave the scene. On their way up the dock, they pointed out to Hartman that the resident crocodile was still only a few boat lengths away.