NOVATO, Calif. Eric Holland was just two days shy of his 16th birthday last August when he, his brother, Michael, 13, and their mother went to celebrate at Stinson Beach near their home. What happened that day led to the recent presentation of a national Boy Scout award for "heroic effort" in saving another's life.
As Eric paddled on a boogie board (a small surf board) from shore that day, he had no thoughts of heroism. And, certainly, he had no idea that an 18-foot Great White Shark was prowling the waters.
He had paddled about 20 yards from shore when he heard someone calling for help. Eric looked around and saw another boarder trying to kick with one leg. Blood streamed from the boarder's other leg.
At first, Eric thought the other boarder had hit a rock or had some other accident in the water. Before he could say anything, the victim looked at him and said, "A shark bit me."
The other boarder, Jonathan Kathrein, 16, had been in about 5 feet of water some 50 yards off shore when the shark first nudged him. The Novato Advance reported: "He made a futile escape attempt, paddling frantically toward shore. The 18-foot Great White sunk its teeth into his thigh. Jonathan grabbed its gills and managed to wrestle it off."
When Eric learned of the attack, he didn't have time to worry whether the shark was still in the vicinity. He would make a likely target, also: the water was cool, so he and his brother had donned wet suits. Marine biologists say that sharks often mistake swimmers in black wet suits for seals, a favorite prey.
"I never even thought of it [the possibility he might have been attacked]," Eric told the Novato Advance. "It was kind of a 'there's a problem, let's deal with it' mentality."
Almost as second nature, Eric's training as a Boy Scout kicked in. His first lifesaving badge was in water rescue. Jonathan lay bleeding on the board; Eric pulled him toward shore.
Eric's mother, Bryna, was on the beach, unaware of the life-or-death drama her son was involved in. "I heard the most unearthly sound, a groaning, and wondered, 'What is that terrible sound?' " Sister Holland told the Church News in a telephone interview. "I went to the edge of the water and looked out. Eric was about 5 feet from shore, pulling Jonathan. He called to Michael to bring towels and told me to go find a lifeguard."
Others helped Eric get Jonathan onto the beach. He used a towel to apply direct pressure on the wound. A doctor who happened to be at the beach stepped forward to help. "The lifeguards must have seen that something was going on because they were there in a minute," Sister Holland said. "Once they started doing first aid I sat down and said a prayer. I thought back on the prayer that I had said that morning. In that prayer, I told the Lord that we were going to the ocean where there were risks and asked Him to watch over my boys, to keep them safe.
"As I sat on the beach while the lifeguards and others were taking care of Jonathan, I thanked Heavenly Father that that my own boys were safe and prayed for that young man, too. It was a scary thing to learn that a huge shark was just a few feet from my boys."
Sister Holland said that she saw it as a fortunate thing that Eric had paddled on his boogie board in the direction and the distance that he had gone. "There were others out there, but you never know if anyone would have heard or noticed Jonathan," she said. "He could have gone into shock. Eric credits his Scout training with his ability to help Jonathan. That training allowed him to respond with a level head and to know exactly what had to be done."
Sister Holland said that Eric's Scoutmaster, Keith Coombs, deserves some kind of recognition. "He has been a very diligent Scoutmaster, making sure the boys receive their training. He's been just great."
After a helicopter transported Jonathan to a hospital, officials closed the beach. Sister Holland and her sons gathered their beach gear and went home. After a while, she said, they "kind of set it aside," and didn't dwell on the events of the day. Memory of those events came back full force recently when Eric was a guest of honor at a Boy Scout award ceremony. Jonathan was also present. "He's doing great," Sister Holland said. "His mother said that his recovery has been miraculous." It took doctors more than 200 stitches to close the wound.
Sister Holland said that she feels that she still owes Eric a birthday celebration, since his was cut short last summer. "I don't think we'll go to the beach," she exclaimed. "Maybe a hike in the mountains?" Certainly, Eric won't spend the day watching "JAWS." The movie was playing on television the night of his heroic rescue. "I wasn't in a hurry to see that," he told a local reporter.
Sister Holland and her husband, Rodney, have lived in Novato about 10 years. They are members of the Novato Ward, San Rafael California Stake. In addition to sons Eric and Michael, they have a daughter, Kristen, 18, who is a student at UCLA.