BALD HEAD ISLAND, N.C. — Ian Tordella-Williams is living these days on Bald Head Island. His parents, Susan Tordella-Williams and Bob Williams alerted us to an amazing story involving their son, who was a Westford Academy graduate.
Ian and his girlfriend visited the ocean front on June 4 for the community’s informal “Howl at the Moon” event to revel under the full moon. The couple was showing a friend the beach and the event. Some two hundred party-goers were on hand. It was about 7 p.m. and Tordella-Williams said he’d had a beer.
When walking onto the beach, Tordella-Williams said he noticed five swimmers out on the sea. The surfer and wind-surfer instructor said he was struck briefly by the sight. “It was a really bad place to be.”
“The tide was low, then the tide came in and they didn’t notice. In the third and fourth hour, the tide comes in fast,” said Tordella-Williams. “They got washed off the sand bar.”
It wasn’t until he saw people waving on the beach that he could see the situation was, in fact, dire. He ran a couple hundred feet down to the shoreline and could see four heads bobbing in the three foot waves. One was 100 yards from shore, while the other three were at least double the distance away.
“You could hardly see their heads,” said Tordella-Williams. Relying on his years of swimming experience, he surmised “The one closer in was really in trouble. She was going in and out underwater. I said ‘I am really worried about that one.”
As luck had it, there was a kid-sized raft, about four feet long, on the shore line. “I took that and paddled like a surf board to the first kid.” It was a girl, about 12-14 years old.
“She said ‘thank God, I thought I was going to drown … I thought I was drowning,” recalled Tordella-Williams. “I had her kick while I paddled towards the other three.”
The two ventured farther out to the other three. “We couldn’t get into the raft. We just sat in the raft and held onto the edge.”
The group clung to the raft for about 20 minutes until an island beach squad could reach them.
“I was just trying to tell them stories and keep them calm,” said Tordella-Williams. “They were all worried about sharks.”
A man in a wet jacket made his way out to the group before the boat arrived.
Everyone was stunned with their brush with death. Though tired, the four “were able to hold themselves on. Their legs were completely cramped.”
The first girl rescued estimated that she’d consumed and vomited two gallons of sea water before Tordella-Williams rescued her.
Tordella-Williams said “I wished I’d gone out there sooner but I didn’t. I waited until I saw the people on the beach waving.”
When the group was brought safely ashore, Williams was struck by the raucous party afoot in light of the tragedy that had just played out on the water.
He left the beach with his girlfriend and friend with the victims receiving treatment ashore by emergency responders. “I just left. There was just too much going on.”
But before leaving he heard someone ask,”Where’s Kevin?’ I said I don’t know I don’t even know who Kevin is.”
Tordella-Williams, his girlfriend and visiting friend left the beach. As they left, Tordella-Williams said he could hear some of the party-goers chant a prayer for “Kevin’s” safe return.
The fifth person, Kevin Scott Roberts, 43, of Mt. Lookout, W. Va., was washed away, his body discovered later by the Coast Guard. The man was related to at least two of the youngsters rescued by Tordella-Williams.
Some reports were that the man was about to be married. It’s believed the man entered the ocean to try to rescue the others.
“They were all there for the wedding,” said Tordella-Williams. “The kids were not talking about him. I think they were in too much shock.”
“I still don’t know who they are,” said Tordella-Williams. He believed the group was from West Virginia for the deceased man’s wedding.
Tordella-Williams moved to Ayer with his family in 2006. He spent many summers at Sandy Pond Beach before working as a lifeguard one summer at the Nashoba Valley Swim Club in Westford. He’s parlayed his surfing know-how into a kite-surfer instruction business.
He said his experience trained him to track the victims’ heads bobbing on the horizon. “You see a head on shore, and then the head goes away,” said Tordella-Williams of the rising and falling waves. “You both have to be at the crest of a wave.”
One would-be rescuer entered the water with Tordella-Williams. “The guy was paddling the other way. I just left him.” Tordella-Williams said he knew time was running out for the first girl saved and went straight for her.
Tordella-Williams said he hoped others would take away one critical piece of information about the story. “I wouldn’t have gone out there without floatation,” which he said is absolutely vital in a situation like this.
The story was picked up by several North Carolina news outlets. And “the mayor has called me, and all that.”
Tordella-Williams said many have called him a hero. “I don’t consider myself a hero. I just have to help — that’s just part of who I am. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Thank God there was a raft there.”