On a sunny, breezy day last August, Nick Tumilowicz heard a commotion as he grilled bratwurst at a friend’s birthday party in San Francisco’s Candlestick Point Park. A group of party guests had gathered at the edge of the picnic area, yelling and pointing at something floating in San Francisco Bay. As he ran to investigate, he soon saw what was wrong: A couple of kids in a rowboat were caught in the current and being pulled out to sea.
Two 12-year-old boys, Christian Pryfogle and Jack Olinger, who had been at the party earlier, had climbed into an eight-foot dinghy moored nearby and had begun rowing out to retrieve a football. Once they’d paddled beyond the calm waters of the cove, a beach umbrella rigged to the small craft caught the wind and tugged the boat into open water. The pair panicked and tried to row back to shore. But they were no match for the elements and spun helplessly in circles. “We were crying and yelling at each other to keep rowing,” says Christian.
Tumilowicz, 34, an executive at a renewable-energy company, sprinted half a mile to the farthest point of land. The boat was already just a dot on the horizon. He knew that the flimsy craft would soon be overtaken by the waves, and that the bay was 55 degrees. A year earlier, a man had died of exposure after just one hour in the bay.
“Everything went quiet in my head,” Tumilowicz recalls. “I was trying to figure out how to swim to the boys in a straight line.”
A former lifeguard, Tumilowicz stripped off his clothes and jumped into the frigid water. Every 500 yards or so, he raised his head to assess his progress. “At one point, I considered turning back,” he says. “I wondered if I was putting my life at risk.” After 30 minutes of battling the current, he was about a mile from his starting point and close enough to yell to the boys, “Take down the umbrella!”
Christian wrestled with the tangle of bungee cords and duct tape that held the umbrella. Finally, he uncoiled the knotted cords and freed the umbrella.
Then Tumilowicz was able to catch up and climb aboard the boat. “We’re going to get back,” he told them.
Tumilowicz took over rowing, but the waves and current were almost too strong for him.
“Let’s aim for the pier,” Jack said, pointing to a dock at an abandoned Navy shipyard about a half mile away. Tumilowicz turned the vessel toward it. Soon afterward, waves crashed over the boat, and it began to sink. “Can you guys swim?” he cried. “A little bit,” the boys said.
Once they were in the water, Tumilowicz decided it would be safer and faster for him to pull the boys toward the pier. Christian and Jack were wearing life jackets and floated on their backs. Tumilowicz held the tops of their jackets in one hand and sidestroked with the other arm toward land.
He swam desperately as water washed over the boys’ faces.
“Are we almost there?” they asked again and again. “Yes,” Tumilowicz assured them each time.
After 30 minutes, they reached the pier. They scrambled up a metal beam to the dock and huddled there until a Coast Guard boat picked them up and took them to a waiting ambulance. Tumilowicz, even though mildly hypothermic and exhausted from his exertions, greeted the boys’ parents with a smile when they finally arrived.
To Christian’s father, Mike Pryfogle, Tumilowicz had been a stranger before that day. Now, he was the man who risked his life to save Pryfogle’s son. “You’re a hero,” he told Tumilowicz repeatedly. “You’re a hero.”