By PAUL A. BARRA
JAMES ISLAND On a balmy October morning in 1998, Jackie O’Shaughnessy and her grandson Rhett were enjoying their time together as they strolled down to the creek that runs behind O’Shaughnessy’s sea island home. As they chatted comfortably, neither realized that seconds later their lives would be changed forever.
Young Rhett, just a month shy of his fourth birthday, slipped on wet decking as he walked with his grandmother. Before she could even react, the boy was on his back and skidding under the railing of her dock. He disappeared instantly in the roiling, murky water.
The creek feeds from Charleston Harbor and is unnamed. At low tide it is not navigable, but when the tide turns the sea rushes into the narrow channel with ferocity. That October day, the seventh, the tide was known as a perigee, when the moon reaches its nearest point to earth, exerting greater than usual pull on large bodies of water here. The tide was 7.2 feet in the main harbor, compared to normal 5 foot tides, and the water temperature was 79 degrees Fahrenheit. The big Harvest Moon was two days on the wane. The creek was 15 feet deep when Rhett plunged into it; all the marsh grasses that front the harbor and normally frame the O’Shaughnessy view of the Charleston battery were under water. The water moved up the creek bed in a hurry, carrying sand and mud and plankton with it. It lapped up on the O’Shaughnessy dock as it billowed by, turning the wood planking into a deadly waterslide for a small boy in rubber-soled boots.
With literally no time to think, the grandmother threw herself after the boy, headfirst. She locked her ankles around deck posts and arched her frail body into the stream. Rhett surfaced once, but she missed him. Intuiting that she was outmanned in a hopeless cause, small and weak against the power of nature, O’Shaughnessy kept repeating in her mind, like a mantra: “Oh my God, help me!”
The child came up again, but his hair slipped through her fingers. Desperate, running out of time, she hooked a foot onto the ladder that accesses the boat dock where she and her grandchildren fish when the water is lower. Approximating where the tide would have carried her grandson in the seconds since he’d gone into the water, she reached out again.
This time, his hand surfaced, and she grabbed his pinky finger.
“I pulled him up by his little finger. Then I grabbed his clothes,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I would not let him go away without me. If he was going, I was going too.”
Somehow and no one knows how she got Rhett on the dock. He cried and cried in fright, she said, but he was alive and conscious. Except for some nightmares early on, and a reluctance to go back onto the dock, he shows no signs six months later of injury from his ordeal.
His grandmother is another story.
“For four months I had difficulty getting to sleep; I could see his little head going under. Then, when I did fall off, I’d wake up screaming. Even now,” she said in March 1999, “when I think about it, it really gets to me.”
She also ran a low-grade fever and felt ill for months after the event. Her family physician sent her to specialists in the renown medical centers of Charleston for an array of tests. All were negative. The doctors think that her malaise was a reaction to the accident. She moped a lot in the weeks after Rhett nearly drowned, bone tired and alone in the big house she loves. She and her husband bought the place soon after he retired from the Navy in 1967. When David died in 1985, Jackie decided to stay on the creek. She minds her grandchildren often; she finds that they fill part of the void left by the death of her husband from a stroke at age 59. Their home now has even greater meaning for her since Rhett nearly drowned in the backyard.
“It had to be a miracle. There is no other way I could have done that,” she said.
O’Shaughnessy weighs 108 pounds and stands just over five feet tall; she is not young and she is not an athlete. Rhett was about 40 pounds at the time and was fully dressed. Figuring his struggling weight, the weight of his wet clothes and the pull of the rushing tide, then the term miracle does not seem an exaggeration under the circumstances.
“If it was a planned thing, I could not do it. It took a lot out of me, aged me quite a bit,” the widow said.
But she found that the near tragedy has strengthened her faith. A convert to Catholicism in 1960 after she married James David O’Shaughnessy, a daily communicant at her home parish Church of the Nativity on James Island, the petite native South Carolinian credits God with saving her grandson’s life and saving her sanity.
“Everybody was praying for me to get over this thing, the horror of it, and I thank God everyday for taking it out of my mind. I really know now that there is a God. If I hadn’t had my faith I could never have gotten through the aftermath.”
Rhett’s parents, Missy and Daryl Moody, don’t talk about the incident in front of their children. Rhett said on the day of his near-fatal plunge, “God saved me, Grandma Jackie,” but did not mention the accident for months afterward. The miracle on the creek still holds the dark potential for nightmares for everyone in the family.
Jackie O’Shaughnessy spends as much time as possible with her six grandchildren, thanking God everyday for watching over them. When she looks out the back of her house at Shute’s Folly Island and the lower peninsula of Charleston, she sees the deep water that came within a finger length of claiming her grandson.
She also sees the work of God work that turned a nightmare into a miracle.