Police officers rescue drowning man from Oak Bluffs harbor

Oak Bluffs harbor was dark early Thursday morning when a Tisbury police officer plunged into the frigid water to help save a man struggling to keep afloat. — Photo by Steve Myrick

In the early morning darkness Thursday morning, a request for mutual aid from Tisbury Police helped save a man who police determined was highly intoxicated, from drowning in frigid Oak Bluffs harbor.

About 4 am, May 9, residents who live near the harbor called 911 to report that a man, later identified as Nelson Ferreira, 40, of Oak Bluffs, was screaming for help and “yelling that he was going to die,” according to the Tisbury police report.

On duty Oak Bluffs police officers Dan Cassidy and David Berube were not in the immediate vicinity of the harbor and requested that communications call Tisbury to assist in the search for the source of the cries for help.

Tisbury officers Jason Marathas and Joseph Ballotte arrived at the harbor where they found Mr. Ferreira clinging to a railing of one of the ladders attached to the harbor bulkhead. The ladders are used by boaters to access their vessels and do not have rungs that extend below the water.

“At that time of the night the harbor is extremely dark so we used our flashlights to illuminate Ferreira in the water,” officer Marathas wrote in his report. “Ferreira stated that he was in the water for a long time and he didn’t have the strength left to get out of the water. He also stated that he has asthma.”

Officers Cassidy and Berube also arrived. The officers attempted to toss a line attached to a nearby boat to Mr. Ferreira but he was unable to grasp it.

The water temperature was about 50 degrees. At that temperature a hypothermia victim can succumb to fatigue and unconsciousness within an hour.

Mr. Ferreira was taking in water and barely able to keep his head above the surface. “At that time,” officer Marathas wrote, “I made the decision that Ferreira was in extreme distress and needed immediate help.”

Officer Marathas removed his patrol jacket, duty belt and vest and jumped into the harbor. The water was bone-chilling cold. He swam over to Mr. Ferreira, who was now struggling to keep his head above water, and helped support him against the ladder railing so he could rest.

The officers attempted to lift Mr. Ferreira out of the water but the effort failed due to his size and the weight of his wet clothes. Officer Cassidy retrieved a life jacket from his cruiser and tossed it to Mr. Marathas who asked Mr. Ferreira to put it on.

“Ferreira wasn’t able to follow my commands due to his extreme exhaustion and hypothermia and confusion,” Mr. Marathas said. As the officer attempted to help him don the life jacket, Mr. Ferreira panicked, lost his grip on the ladder railing and begin to slip under the water. The officer pulled him back to the surface and managed to place the life jacket on him. The men rested for a moment.

Unable to lift Mr. Ferreira out of the water, officer Marathas made the decision to swim him over to a nearby dingy dock located in front of Nancy’s restaurant. He told Mr. Ferreira that he would have to release his grip on the railing.

“After convincing Ferreira to trust me,” officer Marathas said in his report, “he eventually released his hands and rested back against my body. I secured my left hand around and across his chest area grabbing on to the life vest and with my right arm I started to back stroke, heading for the wooden slip.

Officer Cassidy leapt into the water to assist officer Marathas as he towed Mr. Ferreira to the wooden dock where emergency medical personnel waited. Once there the officers lifted the man from the water.

Mr. Ferreira provided police with a garbled version of events that night, according to Oak Bluffs police. He initially told police that that he had been thrown off a boat and had been floating in the water for hours.

“He quickly recanted that someone threw him off and and stated that he had been floating from Edgartown harbor to Oak Bluffs,” officer Cassidy said in his report. “It was clearly apparent that Ferreira was highly intoxicated. His speech was slurred, there was an odor of alcohol and Ferreira admitted to drinking all night.”

EMS transported Mr. Ferreira to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital as the officers went to change into dry clothes.

In a telephone conversation Friday, Officer Marathas said that given the situation, he thought he had no choice but to enter the water. “I’ve always been a pretty good swimmer,” he said.

Off-duty Friday, Mr. Marathas was busy trying to replace his cell phone, which he had forgotten to remove from his pocket when he dove into the harbor.

“You never know what’s going to happen on a shift,” he said. “The main thing is that everyone gets home safe at the end of their shift. That’s the goal.”