Mount Rainier National Park situated in Washington sees over a million visitors each year. For Eric Mendis, a Sri Lankan serving in the US Army, it meant the ideal weekend he’d been looking forward to spending with friends.
However, the events that unfolded that weekend in June not only caught Eric off guard, but also caught the attention of the US media, namely the Q13 Fox News crew who captured the day’s happenings on camera.
From his barracks in Seattle Washington, Eric Mendis via an online chat spared a few hours to answer questions posed by the Sunday Times who were able to track him down for the details about that fateful day.
|Eric reaching for the vehicle in gushing waters. Pic by Gayan Randeny
The 27-year-old, a former student of Trinity College, Kandy, completed a degree in Computer Networking at Westwood College in Chicago and joined the US Army last November. Having spent a tiring week in training, Eric had arranged with Sri Lankan friend Gayan Randeny and his family to spend the weekend at Mount Rainier, located just 80 km southeast of Seattle.
As fate would have it, that same day Gerry Goit, another visitor to Mount Rainier was just returning from a trek at the national park. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for Goit as he steered his Nissan SUV towards the exit of the park. But the 50-year-old father dozed off for a second behind the wheel. Suddenly the peace of the park’s surroundings was shattered.
“We were making our way down from a cliff,” types Eric via chat. “My friend who loves photography was busy taking some shots so I waited for him. But when he took a bit longer I went back to get him. I was expecting, at worst a bear or something, but what we did see was a vehicle turned over in the river.”
According to reports by Fox News, shocked bystanders could only watch as Goit’s vehicle accelerated through the trees landing with its hood downward, caught in the torrents of the Nisqually River, one of many rivers that run alongside Mount Rainier.
Gayan Randeny who remained on the banks of the river later updated his personal blog with pictures of that day writing, “there were a few people gathered on the road side, but unable to find a way to help. In the next moment I saw Eric running across a fallen tree that provided the only access path to the other shore of the river.”
“Eric was the first to hit the freezing waters of the Nisqually River - which is constantly fed by the melting glaciers from the park’s surroundings.
“At the time I didn’t hesitate because the most I would have ended up with would have been a few bruises. But now when I think about it, it could have been risky. But it was someone’s life, what if that had been me ?“ Eric says, when asked as to why he took the first step to reach the upturned SUV which was a good 10 metres from where they were, almost on the other shore.
Fortunately, fate intervened and the rocky riverbed served to stabilize the capsized vehicle. But the flowing water was fast filling the interior of the SUV. “Eric dared to somehow carefully approach the SUV. He started to talk to the person inside the vehicle and looked for ways to break in from the rear door,” wrote Gayan in his blog.
Goit was quoted as saying in an interview with the Fox News channel, that at the time all he could do was to pray for someone to help him. His body submerged in freezing waters was ironically trapped by the very seat belt that was meant to save his life. “He was conscious but was struggling to keep his head above water to breathe,” recalls Eric who reached out for the handle of the rear door of the vehicle, “It wouldn’t budge, it was just stuck.”
While Eric tried to find a way into the vehicle a few bystanders had joined him to lend a hand after they noticed the path that Eric took to get to the vehicle.
With no other option remaining to free the trapped man for whom time was running out, they together with Eric used a rock to break the glass of the rear window of the SUV to reach him.
“The guy was trapped in his own seat belt, and so we had to cut the belt. One of the guys had a knife,” says Eric. “We carried him out of the vehicle but he was suffering from hypothermia.”
With no communication available in the area Eric believes that bystanders who witnessed the event or those travelling down from Mount Rainier would have alerted Park Rangers who came to the scene and secured the vehicle with a rope. Goit was later placed in a sleeping bag, and airlifted to an ambulance that took him straight to hospital.
Drenched to the bone and having been in the water the longest, Eric began feeling chills creeping into his system as well. Having found his way to the road, he said “If I didn’t get out of the water, next (to have contracted hypothermia) would have been me because the water was that cold.”
Cold and exhausted, little was he expecting the media frenzy that greeted him on the banks of the Nisqually, all the action having been captured on video.
Thanks to social outlets like youtube, Eric’s face was everywhere and it wasn’t long before news of his brave act got out. “I didn’t want to worry my parents,” confesses the young Corporal whose aunt and grandparents reside in the United States. “It was just another day and I didn’t think anything of it.”
Back in Sri Lanka, Eric’s dad explains that it was his aunt who actually informed him of Eric’s heroic deeds.
“I watched the video clip on youtube, and only then did I realize what happened,” said Eric’s father Marlon Mendis, a resident of Moratuwa and incidentally a tsunami survivor as well, who called Eric soon after. His son’s response was simple, he says. “I did what needed to be done.”
The time is 1 a.m. in Seattle and Eric has an early start ahead of him. As a final question, we ask what he misses most about home.
The response is immediate. “My family, friends and of course the food - bath and karawala,” he says. “When I was with nandi or grandma I would eat karawala most of the time, but now in the Army it’s hard,” he laments. “Pepper is not exactly a spice, you know?”
Having been in the US for five years Eric completed his Masters degree in Computer Networking. While in Sri Lanka he worked for PC House and considers himself as nothing more than an ordinary computer geek.
Heroes are hard to find. A scarce commodity these days when celluloid dictates that they be draped in a cape and have powers of telepathy. Sometimes we fail to see the heroism in ordinary people, like Eric.
See also the Fox website that has Eric’s clip