By Claire Metz
NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Florida (WESH) — A New Smyrna Beach man had an amazing reunion on Tuesday with a woman he rescued from a sinking boat 41 years ago.
“I’ll never forget him. I can’t thank him enough. He’s truly my hero,” Memory Wilks said.
Wilks, of Texas, embraced her hero, a 72-year-old local man named Doug Ritter. Wilks had been clearing out her parent’s Port Orange home recently and found a newspaper article from May 1982 depicting a traumatic incident a half mile off Ponce Inlet when she was just 8. Her family’s 17-foot speed boat with four adults and four children aboard, including her, started sinking.
“We were taking on water faster than we could bail it out,” Wilks said. “There were jellyfish everywhere. Oh, the terror.”
“Someone yelled. A flare was up in the sky out in the ocean,” Ritter said.
Ritter ran a concession on the beach back then and he happened to have his army surplus LARC, a 35-foot land and sea vessel used in Vietnam, on the beach. Ritter had bought it as a toy but it became a life saver that day when he and another man jumped in and went to the rescue.
“The boat was half sunk. They were like a foot and a half of water deep already. All their belongings were floating away,” Ritter said. “They were in a panic. Everybody was just screaming and terrified.”
“He reached his hand down and he said, ‘sweetie, I got you. Grab my hand,’” Wilks said.
Ritter, in his amphibious vessel, got Wilks and the seven others safely back. He even managed to tow the sinking boat in.
“God had him in the right place at the right time with the right toys,” Wilks said.
That wasn’t the only rescue for Ritter and his army surplus boat back in the ‘80s. He saved a half dozen swimmers caught in a fierce rip current, and he towed in a banner plane that had crashed in the ocean offshore. The pilot was OK. The plane needed help.
“I always thought he was military,” Wilks said.
Wilks thought Ritter and his boat were coastguard, brought out by the flare they set off. Then she read the news article and found Ritter on Facebook. It was a tearful reunion for both.
“My best day ever at the beach,” Ritter said.
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