Lesson of lifeguard Bill Elwang's regretful mistake breaking neck in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., boating accident by diving into shallow water may stop repeat accidents

9:02 PM, Sep 4, 2012   |    comments
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KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. (WUSA) - "I did something real stupid," said Bill Elwang, 58, who is wearing on his head a contraption called a halo, though it looks more devilish than angelic. It is bolted to his skull with eight screws to keep his spine straight.

Elwang has had the halo since July 4th. That's when he made a split second mistake while on a friend's boat on the Albemarle Sound near Nags Head.

"I was on a power boat and I decided to take a swim. I didn't know it was shallow, of course," said Elwang.
He says the depth gauge showed that they were in about six feet of water, but he didn't realize the boat had drifted. They were on a sandbar in only two feet of water.

"I took a running start and bounced off the boat, head first in to the sandbar. I damaged my neck real bad. And the people on the boat, thank God they were experienced paramedics," he said.

They kept him flat, and supported his neck as they raced to shore where rescue crews were waiting. He had broken five vertebrae in his neck: 2,3,4,5, and 7. Fortunately, and perhaps miraculously, his spinal column was not severed.

The crazy thing is, Elwang knew the dangers of open water better than most. He served as a lifeguard for more than ten years at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which is well known for its rip currents. Over the years, he saved dozens of people from drowning in the rough surf.

"Anybody that jumps in uncharted waters, you're asking for trouble. You never know what's underneath the water. It might be a piling; it might be an old rock or a piece of metal. I've always taught that, I was a lifeguard and I always taught that, but I didn't think that day," lamented Elwang.

Though the halo screws hurt, and he's in a lot of pain, Elwang knows he's lucky to be alive, and not paralyzed. His doctor hopes his vertebrae will be healed enough by October to remove the Halo, but there's no telling yet, how much permanent damage there may be. Bill is hoping his story will serve as a reminder to others, of what never to do.

"Think before you leap. Think before you do something stupid to hurt yourself."

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