Rhett Willingham and his 17-year-old sister Addison Bethea were out scalloping in Keaton Bay, Florida, when a casual adventure turned into a life-changing event.
“We’d been out swimming together for about four hours and had literally been together the entire time,” Willingham said. “We were about 75 yards from my boat and just decided to start swimming back. We were about 10 feet apart and I suddenly heard her yelp.”
Willingham turned to check on Bethea and couldn’t find her in the water.
“Suddenly she shot up, was waving her arms everywhere and just letting out a blood-curdling scream,” Willingham continued. “There was blood everywhere.”
He immediately swam over to Bethea, saw the shark attacking her, and worked to separate his sister from the shark.
“Another boater came flying over and we managed to get my sister up into his boat,” Willingham said. “The entire time I was fighting to separate them, the shark just wouldn’t leave us alone, it was pretty clear that he wanted to eat her. The other boater made a quick tourniquet out of dock rope, and once I was in the boat, I corrected the tourniquet, and we hauled butt into shore and got flown to the hospital.”
Photo courtesy of Rhett Willingham.
Willingham works for two fire departments, part-time with the city of Perry, Florida, and full-time with Taylor County Fire Rescue for the last three years. He also works as an EMT. Growing up with a flight medic stepdad and seeing friends join the military, he became a supporter of Black Rifle Coffee Company and drinks BRCC whenever he’s on shift at the firehouse.
“I grew up with friends whose dads were firemen, and my stepdad served as a flight medic and a firefighter — it just seemed like a cool job. Not to mention the obvious, helping people, but that’s everyone’s answer when they tell you why they became a firefighter,” Willingham said. “As a firefighter, you normally don’t witness the bad things that are happening, you’re just dealing with what comes after. Witnessing it and dealing with it [like I did last week], it’s just not something I ever want to do again, especially not something happening to my own sister.”
“I try to be prepared for everything. I have medical kits with tourniquets in my truck and everywhere I go, but the boat we had taken out was brand new and I hadn’t put a medical kit on it,” Willingham said. “Now there’s a medical bag on the boat, but at the time, we’re lucky we had the dock rope on the boat we ended up getting into.”
Bethea’s right leg was successfully amputated above the knee yesterday at the Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare Pediatric unit.
“The way the shark attacked her, it bit her right quad and calf,” Willingham said. “The bites tore two chunks out of her calf and basically tore her quad off her leg. When we got her in the boat, there was no muscle or anything left; it kind of looked like a chicken wing that had been eaten already. I’ve been diving, hunting, and spearfishing my entire life, and it’s normal to see sharks, but normally, if they bite, they’ll realize that human is not what they want, and they’ll go away. This shark 100% was trying to eat her, which is just not normal.”
Thanks to Willingham’s emergency medical care, his sister was able to survive a scenario that could have ended very differently if he had not been there.