Local News

Coast Guard hero, girl he rescued reunite

Posted August 4, 2014 5:21 p.m. EDT
Updated August 4, 2014 6:24 p.m. EDT

— On the 224th anniversary of the presidential order that inaugurated the United States Coast Guard, the mission to keep the waters safe resonated at an Oak Island reunion.

Cindi Vance was meeting her rescuer, Petty Officer David O'Neal, for the first time since he pulled her from the surf in 1971.

Together, they looked back at the story from the Wilmington Morning Star. 

"I am the 12-year-old girl rescued on that day," Vance said. She was Cindi Gregory then, and she was spending a day at Yaupon Beach with her family.

She and O'Neal took turns describing the rescue. 

"And just like that, I was gone," she said.

"So, I ran in the water," he said.

"To me, it didn't seem like it was rough," she said.

"Oh, it was rough," he said. 

"I can remember trying to reach for water, reach for air," she said.

"I got her by the arm," he said.

"My next memory is someone grabbing me," she said, "And he said, 'We're going under water.'"

"And I got her up to where her feet could touch the bottom," O'Neal concluded.

As they finished the story, words turned to tears and hugs.

They remembered, too, those who didn't make the reunion.

There was another rescuer in the water that day. O'Neal handed Vance to Petty Officer Ronald Savage who carried her up the beach. Savage has passed away, and his son met Vance in his honor.

Vance's brother, Charles, was the reason she was in the water to begin with. She went in to reach him, she said, but didn't quite make it.

"Despite everyone trying to save my brother, Charles was already in the arms of God," she said.

O'Neal shrugs off the "hero" label.

"I was just doing what I had to do," he said.

On Monday, Vance did what she had to – thanked the men who saved her life.

Both O'Neal and Savage received commendation medals for the rescue back in 1971.