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The Strength of a Father

The shark attack, the race to shore, the life flight to the hospital. Every second I was praying for my son. But were my prayers enough?

By Cecil Vossler, Fort Worth, Texas

As appeared in

Nicholas raced out to the sandbar to catch the waves. What a perfect summer day. I’d gone fishing in the bay earlier until I caught my limit of trout. Now I was on the sea side of Matagorda Island with my friend Mark, his two teenaged sons and Nicholas, my 12-year-old.

I stood with my feet in the water and looked out at Mark and the boys bodysurfing. For years we’d been coming to this spot on the Texas gulf, our family getaway, the perfect break from the hectic work of running my small plumbing business back in Fort Worth.

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Alisha, my wife, was still with our fishing boat on the bay side of the island. Today would be a scorcher walking back across the sand. All the more reason to cool off in the surf.

Nicholas waved from the sandbar. He was growing so fast, tall, broad-shouldered, quick with a football. Running my own business took up a lot of my time but I always tried to be there for Nicholas, as much as I could. I waved back and watched him dart toward the surf.

He fell. Scrambled up and then fell again. It was like someone had yanked him underwater. I held my hand up to block the glare of the sun. Was there something wrong? I felt my heart start to race.

Mark splashed through the water and picked Nicholas up. Next thing I knew he was racing back, carrying my son. A stingray, I thought. He must have been stung. But no, this looked worse. Blood gushed from Nick’s left foot.

“Bull shark!” Mark hollered.

I staggered forward. Panic seized me. Blood spurted from a gaping wound in Nicholas’s foot. Blood was dripping everywhere. Mark carried him up to the beach and I ran after, looking on in horror. “Help me, Cecil,” Mark yelled. “Make a tourniquet.”

I whipped off the old baseball shirt I was wearing and prayed I remembered how. An artery must have been severed, the blood was coming so fast. Ugly tooth marks were visible in the flesh. I wrapped the shirt above the wound and pulled it tight.

“I can’t believe I got bitten by a shark,” Nicholas said, dazed.

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“You’ll be okay, buddy,” I said. “Just hang on. Stay calm.”

The bone was exposed. I moved a flap of skin across it. Nicholas groaned. The blood kept coming—my shirt was already red—and we were so far from help. None of us had a cell phone.

“Daniel,” I yelled to Mark’s 13-year-old. “Tell Alisha. Run across the island. Tell her to find the fastest boat that can get us back to the mainland. We need help. Hurry!”

Daniel raced to the dunes before I even finished. Now we had to keep Nick alive while we made the long trek back to the bay. Only a third of a mile, but it seemed like crossing the Sahara. Mark and his other son, 15-year-old Kevin, lifted Nicholas up.

“You stanch the wound,” Mark shouted to me. “Don’t let up on the pressure...” Or he’ll bleed to death. I didn’t even want to say it out loud. My son’s life was literally in my hands. Could I do it? Could I save him?

We started across. Flies buzzed around our faces. Sweat dripped down, blurring my eyes. Dune grass slapped at our ankles. The sand burned our feet. Nicholas was heavy. Mark and Kevin struggled under his weight. I dug my fingers into his wound to hold back the blood his heart was pumping out.