Riptide Rescue: Quick actions by off-duty Huntsville firefighter praised as heroic

single-meta-cal September 1, 2017

He wasn’t trying to be a hero. He was merely “doing for him what I’d want them to do for my little boy.” 

Josh Shumate was relaxing at Orange Beach with his wife, Megan. It was a three-day getaway in late March with their three-year-old son Noah and Shumate’s parents Donnie and Debbie. 

The gulf water was too chilly for most swimmers and there were red-flag conditions, warning of treacherous conditions. That didn’t deter a tall, lanky 14-year-old boy, who had ventured 60 yards from shore.  

Watching closely was his mother, who began to recognize her son was struggling. She began hollering for help. 

Shumate, 36, is a Huntsville Fire & Rescue firefighter. He’s also a trained lifeguard and instructor. He had been Aquatics Director for the Huntsville YMCA branch on Weatherly Road. More times than he could count, he’s rescued a child in the water. 

Shumate darted into the surf and began swimming toward the boy.  

Caught in a rip current 

“I got about 20 yards away and I could hear him screaming,” Shumate says. “I beelined to him. I was getting closer and I could see he was going under and staying longer.” 

“Grab my hand,” Shumate said as he reached the exhausted boy. “Please don’t jump on me. Just get in behind me.” 

Then Shumate realized the boy had been caught in a rip current, a fast channel of water that rushes away from shore, and now both were in it.  

“Don’t let me go!” the boy kept pleading.  

“I’ve got you. You’re going to be OK,” Shumate kept assuring. 

But, Shumate confesses later, “A little bit of panic hit me.”  

Fatigue was catching up with him and they had drifted 100 yards from shore, in 20- to 25-foot deep water. Shumate waved his arm, asking for more help. 

“About that time, I heard the cue (the piercing sound of a siren) on a fire truck,” Shumate says. “It was the best sound I ever heard.” 

“OK, I’ve got this now,” he thought, battling the water. 

A minute later, two lifeguards on ATVs sped to water’s edge and then hustled into the water with floatation devices, soon reaching Shumate and the young man. 

Wouldn’t you know it? The lifeguards were off-duty Orange Beach firefighters. 

‘I’m not a hero’ 

Shumate is sitting at a weathered picnic table with sagging benches behind the No. 12 fire station on Wynn Drive. He is re-telling the saga still another time. He would be fine with keeping it low-key, as just another off-day day-on-the-job.  

But in the weeks after the rescue, the Orange Beach fire chief reached out to Huntsville Fire & Rescue Chief Howard McFarlen to praise Shumate. Then Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon wrote Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle.  

Next thing you know, by summer’s end, Shumate was standing uncomfortably in a figurative spotlight at a City Council meeting, being presented with a Lifesaving Award by McFarlen and Battle. 

Not that big a deal. That’s the way firefighters think. 

Or, as Shumate says, “We go to it.” They go to where the danger is, to where they are most needed to save life and property. 

“We don’t do this to be heroes,” he says. “I’m not a hero.” 

Huntsville firefighter Josh Shumate

Huntsville Firefighter Josh Shumate

So many things fell just right. The boy’s father, who couldn’t swim, ran to call 9-1-1. Debbie and Donnie Shumate, both trained lifeguards, had just left the beach with their son, Noah; they too would have instinctively bolted into the water, perhaps leaving two more weary swimmers fighting a rip current. A fit 36-year-old with lifeguard training and a servant’s heart was sitting on the beach within earshot of the boy’s mother, rather than some non-swimmer already halfway through a cooler of beer. 

Several times in the conversation, Shumate says, “It was a God thing.” 

All that time in the water, there wasn’t time for an official introduction. But later that night, the young man’s father found Shumate and his family as they were returning from dinner, effusive with his thanks.  

“That’s when it got a little emotional for me,” Shumate admits. “He said his son’s name was Noah. Same name as my son. Crazy coincidence.” 

Just doing for somebody else’s son, same as he’d want for his own…