Over the years, we have grown accustomed to asking our clients surviving near death experiences whether they saw "the light" – the brilliant white light some say they see just as they are about to die.
Did you see the light, Jose?
Yes, Mr. Thomas. I saw the light. I saw it.
Many have told us, Yes, they saw the light, and they will never, ever forget it.
Jose Salazar-Cervantés saw the light as he lay dying at the bottom of Alaska's Yukon River. But, he says, an angel saved him, carrying him back from the brink of death. This is his story.
Jose is from Bogotá. He has a big, toothy smile — that's a picture of him up in the right-hand corner of the page.
Jose has always enjoyed two things in life – staying warm and eating. So when he came to this country to find his fortune, he became a cook. First in New York, then in California, he literally baked his way to top of his profession.
When he heard about "big money" to be made in Alaska, Jose took work cooking on a trawler’s floating factory ship. Jose is a good cook. On board ship, he was always warm and had plenty to eat, even in the middle of the Bering Sea.
But trouble always trumps success in the Bering Sea, and Jose was to be no exception.
Trouble for Jose started with the Alaskan Hero. Some shipmates, dissatisfied with the skipper, mutinied, with a gun to the skipper’s head. During this, Jose kept both sides fed and, while it's unknown whether this kept the mutiny from getting out of hand, they all made it back to shore safely.
Mutiny was not enough to keep Jose from the sea. He told his recruiter to find a position where he could cook for a good-sized crew. That the recruiter did, finding him a job aboard the Arctic Bear, a tug.
What the recruiter didn't tell Jose was that the tug worked in a place so cold in winter that your spit freezes before it hits the ground. Jose was headed for Alaska's northernmost interior, along the Yukon River, to Sheldon Point.
The Arctic Bear was offloading gravel for air-strip construction. The company specialized in barging materials into difficult-to-access areas. It advertises "we do whatever it takes" to get the job done.
Unfortunately for Jose, doing "whatever it takes" meant doing work for which he hadn't been hired and with no safety training. Jose was ordered to shovel gravel. The first mate was given the same order, but he simply disappeared. This left only Jose and the second mate, dangerously overextended and working perilously close to the ship’s railing without life jackets.
Jose began digging at the stern. His shovel hit a large rock and broke in two; Jose lost his balance and fell into the Yukon River.
The second mate heard Jose's screams. He immediately shouted, “Man overboard!” The skipper in the wheelhouse, heard the cries for help. He frantically looked for any sign of Jose; there was none. Jose was on his way to the bottom of the river.
Even in the middle of summer, the Yukon River is bleak, cold and dark. Like tar, what falls into it gets sucked to the bottom, never to be seen again. At the time Jose went in, not a single native of Sheldon Point had survived a fall into the water. Just a few weeks earlier, two men died after their kayak overturned.
If there is an angel in this story, it is the Skipper. He had a brainstorm. Why not blast the river, he thought, with engines in emergency full astern? Maybe this would do what had never been done before – bring someone back from the bottom of the river. Of course, wait a moment too long, and the huge prop would chew Jose into bits.
The skipper fired up his engines; the vessel lurched and an enormous liquid mushroom cloud of river water rose from underneath. Jose bobbed to the surface just long enough to be rescued by a skiff launched by workers from shore. So understaffed, undermanned and ill equipped was the Arctic Bear that, even if it had wanted to rescue Jose, it could not have.
Jose, lifeless, was taken to his ship's galley to be warmed and resuscitated. Not until he started to vomit violently was anyone sure he would live.
Jose was emergency evacuated to Seattle for treatment. As often occurs in near-death accidents, he began to show the signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When we first saw Jose we arranged for treatment with a well-respected psychologist, whose practice includes mariners suffering from PTSD.
Beginning with twice-weekly sessions and medication management, and extending for 18 months, Jose gradually overcame his constant, recurring nightmares of drowning and his fear of water. We also arranged for Jose to be paid the balance due on his contract, and a monthly living expense during his treatment.
We knew Jose was recovering when he started smiling again and his appetite returned.
We also filed suit on Jose's behalf in the United States District Court, Western District of Washington. Jose's former employer, their insurers and legal counsel ultimately agreed to settle Jose's case prior to trial. Jose received a settlement check for $150,000.
Jose says he is going home to Bogotá " to see my mama," to stay warm, eat well and be happy. He is now a legend to the people at Sheldon Point — the only human to survive a fall into the river.
Jose Manuel Salazar-Cervantés.
Lucky to be alive.
Saved by an angel.
On his way home.
May God protect you, Jose, and may your angel be with you wherever you go.