For the last four hours, Brandon Pope had been running up and down Lake Arlington in North Texas tending to his brush piles. Pope, a high school biology teacher and father of two from Arlington, Texas, had fished his entire life and it wasn’t unusual for him to be on the water alone, even on a cold January day such as this one. Boating alone during this time of the year was something his wife, Patty, didn’t like but she accepted it. With his last brush pile done, he pointed his center console boat towards the boat ramp and gunned the engine.
The sun was dropping and the sky was already showing signs of the bright orange hues typical of Texas sunsets. The water temperature that afternoon was a cool 48 degrees, but the lake was glassy calm, and so Pope put the boat at full throttle as he headed in. What happened next was as sudden as it was unexpected. Arching his body to stretch his back, Pope released the boat’s steering wheel, and the boat turned sharply to the left ejecting him out of his boat head first into the lake. Unfortunately for Pope, he wasn’t attached to the boat’s kill switch lanyard, nor was he wearing a life jacket.
Momentarily stunned by the cold water, Pope was shocked back to reality when he heard something behind him, and he turned to see his boat turning back towards him. He instantly started backstroking to get out of the boat’s path and it missed him. It was then that Pope realized the enormity of his predicament. There were very few other boaters on the lake that afternoon, he was several thousand yards from the nearest shore, and the 48-degree water was already causing his core temperature to drop. Within a few minutes, it would rob him of the use of his extremities, and it would eventually kill him if he didn’t get out of the water.
Adding to his troubles was the fact that he was wearing several layers of winter clothing. He quickly considered, and then rejected, the idea of removing the clothing. He also considered balling himself into a fetal position to conserve heat and waiting for rescue, but with few other boaters on the lake, Pope quickly concluded that his most immediate threat was losing the ability to tread water and drowning. And so he decided to swim. He knew that a shallow sandbar existed near the mouth of one of the lake’s feeder creeks, and with the sandbar as his target, Pope started swimming.
At first, Pope thought he might actually make it. He was in a good shape and he seemed to be making good progress. Perhaps, he thought, this was not going to be as bad as he initially thought. But hope turned to devastation when he realized that the cold water was already making it difficult to swim and he wasn’t going to make it to the sandbar even though he’d only been in the water five minutes. He could still hear his boat’s engine whining somewhere behind him, but his breathing became more and more difficult and he was now losing the ability to use his arms and legs. After a few more minutes, he noticed that his swim stroke was becoming something more like a dog paddle, and he knew he didn’t have much time left. He could no longer feel his arms or legs, or any other part of his body below his neck for that matter.
He knew he was still propelling himself towards the shallows because he could feel the water rushing past his face, the only part of his body that was out of the water, but soon, the sensation of water sliding passed his face started to fade away as well, which told Pope that he could no longer maintain even a dog paddle.
Having no feeling below his neck, Pope sensed that his body was rotating as he began to sink, legs first. This was the end, he thought, and it all happened so quickly, so easily. Ten minutes earlier he’d been in his boat heading for home, but now he was going to drown. Pope thought of his wife with whom he’d reconciled after a long separation, and he was glad that he’d had the opportunity to do so. He remembered playing with his one-year old daughter and her older brother earlier in the day. It crossed his mind that she would not remember him. Not surprisingly, he also thought about his life insurance.
With his head sinking below the surface, powerless to do anything else, Pope lifted his head back and his face out of the water. He looked up at the beautiful twilight sky and took his last breath. And then…nothing. He stopped sinking. Despite not being able to feel his feet, he knew something had stopped his body from sinking any further, and he realized that he’d probably made it to the sandbar.
Now what? He still couldn’t feel his body much less swim and there was no one around to help him. Although the sandbar had given him a short reprieve, he knew the cold water would soon render him unconscious and within a few hours, it would kill him. If his knees buckled, then his face would drop below the water line and he’d drown immediately. But there was nothing he could do except look up at the sky and wait.
The situation deteriorated rapidly. Pope started losing consciousness as the world around him—what little of it he could see from his precarious position—started to get hazy. He started to lose his peripheral vision and had trouble focusing on the brightly colored clouds above. He knew he didn’t have much more time. At this point, all Pope could do was to make a decision about how he would die. He didn’t want to die in a panicked state—scared and thrashing about. In what he thought would be his last conscious moments, he made a decision that he would do his best to die peacefully, and then he waited.
Anglers Keith Bettis, Ricky Jennings and Jennings’s daughter were also on the lake that afternoon when they noticed what they thought was a jet ski running in a tight circle about a quarter mile away. But when the ski’s erratic engine sounds wouldn’t subside, Jennings pulled out binoculars to get a better look and saw an ominous sign: an unmanned boat doing circles in the lake, not a good sign on a North Texas lake in the winter time. They quickly pulled anchor and headed over to investigate. Upon getting closer, they confirmed their fears: the boat’s engine was running and propelling the boat in a circle, but the occupant was nowhere to be seen. They started a search of the area, and before long, they saw what appeared to be a face sticking out of the water about a hundred yards from the boat. They motored over and called out to him, and to their surprise, Pope responded.
To this day, Pope doesn’t remember responding to his rescuer’s shouts; he recalls looking up at the sunset, thinking of how he would die and suddenly hearing a boat’s engine. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the boat pulls up next to him. The men threw Pope a life jacket, but he had been in the cold water too long, his arms were now useless and he was powerless to grab it. Seeing this, Bettis carefully repositioned the boat, and the two men hauled him out of the water over the boat’s transom.
Although Pope was incoherently talking with his rescuers on the way back to the boat ramp, he doesn’t remember any of it, nor does he remember being carried off Bettis’s boat. His first recollection after being pull from the water is of him lying on the dock and the EMTs stripping off his wet clothes. He also recalls that the sun had fully set by the time he was being wheeled on a gurney to the waiting ambulance.
Upon arriving at the hospital, doctors quickly determined that Pope was suffering from severe hypothermia and they worked to warm him up. His body’s core temperature had dropped to 88 degrees, and he’d been dangerously close—within a few degrees—of going into cardiac arrest. However, the medical team was able to quickly raise his body temperature. Ironically, the process of raising his body’s temperature triggered his own body’s efforts to warm itself, and Pope suffered through an hour of violent, involuntary shivering. It was during this time that Pope was reunited with his wife and children. Because Pope was pretty physically fit, his body recovered quickly and by the end of the night, he was released from the hospital.
Despite the close call, Pope maintains that the episode didn’t really change him, and though he does have a newfound respect for the use of kill switches, he’d long ago learned to appreciate life, because, as this episode so clearly illustrates, things can, and often do, happen. When Pope’s wife first saw him in the hospital, she was angry, but she quickly got passed her anger. After all, as a mountain climber herself, she understood that sometimes the rewards we seek outweigh the risks. And although she rather he didn’t boat alone, he still does.
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish
Note: this story was originally recounted by Brandon Pope on Texas Fishing Forum. To read his post: click here:
Texas Fishing Forum