GUIZERIX: When coverage hits close to home

Published 4:00 am Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Sometimes, a story hits far too close to home.

I could hardly read today’s story on the tragic disappearance of Zeb Hughes and Hunter Palmer, which occurred about this time last year. The reason why is simple: it could easily have been my brother.

Growing up with a love of the outdoors instilled in us from an early age, my brother and I both spent long days in the woods with our father and grandfather. From planting food plots to setting up shooting houses to sitting in the bitter cold waiting for a deer or turkey to cross our paths, we learned to be stewards of the land and to respect the natural resources God gave us.

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Above all else, our father made sure we knew proper safety procedures. We weren’t allowed to touch the 20-gauge shotguns we got for Christmas until we’d read the instructions, twice. We always wore our orange vests and made sure to be careful in the woods or on the water.

Still, accidents happen.

In December 2017, a bad cold snap hit the Florida Panhandle. Snow blanketed the ground and, in a rare event, chunks of ice were seen floating in Pensacola Bay. That didn’t stop my brother and two of his friends from setting out in our dad’s 14-foot aluminum boat early one Saturday morning, scouting for wood ducks.

My brother says he did almost everything right. He tied the anchor off in the right place, wore his life jacket and checked surf conditions before launching the boat. The one thing he didn’t do was fill up on gas. The boat ran out about a mile from shore, and the water got choppier. My brother called a friend to bring him a can of gas, and that friend’s boat was nearly destroyed trying to get to him. They were able to add more gas to the fuel tank, but not before the boat began taking on water with my brother and his two friends steadily bailing.

It was a record 18 degrees outside, even colder with the wind whipping across the bay.

Thankfully, one of his friends was a lifeguard. He was able to swim to shore, carrying the other friend on his back. My brother radioed the Coast Guard that he was in distress, but he stayed with the boat, trying in vain to save the small craft.

His two friends made it to shore just as the first responders and Coast Guard arrived on shore. My brother couldn’t be seen on the horizon and his cries for help had ceased, so one of the boys joined officers on their boat to help locate him while the other was treated in an ambulance.

It was his friend who spotted my brother’s nearly lifeless body floating face-down in the water. Hypothermia had set in. The guardsmen pulled him out of the water like a ragdoll, as his body had begun shutting down.

They made it back to shore and treated my brother and his friends at a local hospital. One doctor told our parents, if he spent even two more minutes in the water, he’d be dead.

Hunting accidents happen no matter how seasoned an individual is, especially in water as unmerciful as the Mississippi River. My brother was one of the lucky ones; he was found before it was too late, and I thank God every day that he’s still with us.

The Palmer and Hughes families face a much harsher reality. Their sons aren’t coming home. My prayers go out to the families as they face another year of uncertainty, of longing, of the absence that accompanies the unknown.