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U.S. Navy sailor from Salem rescues swimmer in Guam

Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class James P. Buriak, from Salem, Va. Photo courtesy Navy Office of...
Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class James P. Buriak, from Salem, Va. Photo courtesy Navy Office of Community Outreach.(WDBJ)
Published: Feb. 27, 2020 at 12:18 PM EST
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A swimmer in Guam is okay, thanks to the efforts of a US Navy sailor.

In early February, Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class James P. Buriak of Salem was walking along Gun Beach in Guam with friends, when they were stopped by two tourists. Buriak is a rescue swimmer assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 8 in San Diego.

The tourists had heard cries for help coming from the water and were looking for someone who could swim. Buriak handed his phone and wallet to his friends and jumped into the ocean toward the distressed people.

“I just happened to be the person there,” said Buriak. “I would like to think that regardless of who it was, they would have done the same. Someone said they needed help, and anyone would do the same in my shoes.”

As he swam into the ocean, he noticed a surfer paddling toward one of the two in distress. After quickly talking to the surfer, he swam out toward the person closest to him, a man who appeared to be in his 20s.

The man told Buriak he was okay, and motioned to his friend who was being helped by the man with the surfboard. As Buriak made his way to the surfer and made sure the two of them were safe, he heard screams from the man he had spoken to seconds before. He started swimming back to the man, swept up by the rip current.

“Once I got past the reef line, I could tell he was stuck in the current, it really grabbed me and immediately pushed me to him.” said Buriak. Once he got to the man, Buriak saw he was barely keeping his head above water.

“I turned him around and hooked my arm around him in a ‘buddy tow’ [a passive sidestroke used to transport people to shore],” said Buriak. “I took him sideways away from the current, and started heading back to the beach. That’s when I found the reef with my foot.”

The reef allowed room to stand, but the victim was too exhausted, according to Buriak. With waves crashing on their backs, Buriak walked him down the coral, toward the shore, cutting his foot in the process. As they got closer, a man threw a boogie board to them and helped get the two back to land.

The group was met by local firefighters and paramedics, who were tending to the first person taken back to shore. After thanking Buriak for saving his life, the tourist was put on a stretcher and taken to emergency services.

Chief Naval Aircrewman Aaron Albright, Buriak’s chief, saw everything unfold and took note of his sailor jumping in.

“This is the kind of thing we train for,” said Albright. “I couldn’t be prouder. He handled it flawlessly.”

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