Grandchildren, officer save Papa’s life

First Posted: 1/15/2009

LUMBERTON -- Lauren, 11, and her 8-year-old brother, Taylor, squeeze extra tightly nowadays when they hug their grandfather.
They don't want to let go, understanding just how quickly he could be gone.
On Tuesday, 80-year-old Roger Thornhill nearly drowned in the Highland Apartment's swimming pool in Lumberton. If not for Lauren and Taylor's quick-thinking and the actions of a Lumberton police officer, Thornhill might not have been able to celebrate his 81st birthday on Aug. 31.
“I was in shock,” said Thornhill's wife of 53 years, Betty. “I thought he was gone.”
Roger and his grandchildren were swimming alone at the pool about 4:15 p.m. when Roger felt a sharp pain in a leg. Moments later, he went under.
“He started going down,” said Lauren. “I didn't know if he was playing or what. Then, when he came up and started splashing, I said, 'He's drowning.' ”
Lauren and Taylor yelled for their grandfather, but he didn't respond. They then sprinted to their grandparent's apartment.
“They were banging on the door and saying, 'Papa's drowning, Papa's drowning!” Betty said.
Lauren dialed 911 and spoke to an operator. Officer Jennifer White, who was investigating a traffic accident at nearby New Gate Church, heard the signal 14 -- the code for drowning. White arrived at the apartment complex less than a minute later.
Thornhill had been afloat for about five minutes when White, in full uniform, jumped into the 8-foot deep water. White, who stands 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 130 pounds, lifted Thornhill's head above water and swam his 5-foot-7-inch, 182-pound frame to the edge.
“All instinct,” said White, a three-year veteran of the department.
Several neighbors helped White pull Thornhill from the pool. He was rushed to Southeastern Regional Medical Center. He was released the next day.
Thornhill, a retired first lieutenant and World War III veteran, thinks he suffered a cramp in his leg that was a result of 35 minutes of exercise on the treadmill earlier that day.
Thornhill, his wife and grandchildren, recalled the near tragedy at the pool Thursday.
“It was a community effort,” Roger Thornhill said.
“It's good to see you smiling,” said Tommy Huggins, who lives next door.
Lauren credits the television show “E.R.” with her ability to think on her feet during an emergency.
“He wouldn't be here today if they were not alert,” said Betty Thornhill, who cannot swim. “They reacted the way they should've. They should be really proud of the way they acted.”
Lumberton Police Chief Robert Grice hailed his officer.
“I'm very proud of Officer White,” Grice said. “She reacted as a professional -- without hesitation. Most officers here would do the same thing, even though it was very risky. She represents us very well.”

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