Ken Moore

Kenny Moore, now in his 70s, stands at the scene of the incident and recalls the day in 1977 when he saved five teens from drowning after their car ran off the road into a creek on James Island. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

Kenny Moore has spent 41 years wondering what became of the five teenagers he delivered from Ellis Creek.

Had he not stopped by that evening, the car they sat in would have been lost in the murky water, their lives abbreviated by a joyride gone wrong.

Moore was 33 on March 16, 1977 when a car broke through a bridge guardrail and cartwheeled into Ellis Creek on James Island. He heard his mother scream from the crowd of onlookers and looked down at the edges of two tires poking out of the muddy creek.

The seconds were ticking by. Inside the car, the teenagers were holding their breath and on the bridge, the crowd was motionless. Moore leaped off the small bridge on Riverland Drive in his loafers, neat slacks and collared shirt, splashing into the creek below — all six feet and 200 pounds of him. He was younger then and his knees didn't bother him like they do now.

It had been high tide an hour before, but now it was shallow enough for Moore to stand in the creek bed. The water was so opaque he had to feel along the side of the car to find a door handle.

“That only took a couple of seconds, maybe 10 seconds, but I knew time was very, very important,” Moore says now.

He wrestled to pry the door open and helped four teenagers out, one by one. 

Those four made it to the water's edge on their own. For a moment, Moore thought the rescue was complete, until the teens said there was a fifth occupant. 

With the help of others, they pulled him out too. The boy wasn’t breathing and another rescuer had to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Most of the action was over before emergency personnel arrived.

And Moore was surprised when the incident was chronicled in the March 25 News and Courier, identifying only the driver as Billy Truelove. That’s all Moore knows about who was in the car that day.

“I guess they decided to go on a joyride,” Moore, now in his 70s, recalls. “And that joyride nearly cost them their lives.”

Now Moore imagines what they did with those lives. Do they have kids of their own? Do some of them still live on James Island? Do they remember the day he saved them?

After Ellis Creek

He left his number with the ambulance workers but didn’t stick around. The headline of the story on the front of the newspaper's local section read, “Thanks To Him, 5 Are Still Alive.”

Moore can remember how big “Senator Strom Thurmond” was written on the note the iconic U.S. senator sent him when he read the story. It’s sitting in a drawer somewhere, he says.

The year after the rescue, Moore volunteered to help find a friend who’d drowned while fishing in Folly River. He spent two weeks looking before John Wilder's body was recovered.

In the years since, his hair has grayed. He jokes in his gravelly voice how what was once on top of his head has migrated south on his face. Moore has retained some of his old characteristics from those long ago days: his hulking stature, signature mustache and devotion to the First Baptist Church of James Island, where he’s a trustee.

Ken Moore

Kenny Moore saved five teens from drowning in 1977 after their car ran off the road into a creek on James Island and flipped, trapping them inside. Moore jumped into the creek fully clothed and pulled all five out to safety. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

On Sundays he tells people where to park at the church, often dressed in polo shirts custom-embroidered with his name and the church’s emblem. He sees it as a necessary duty and often misses the beginning of services to make sure the stragglers find a spot.

Wilder's daughter Una only knew of the man who went out and found her father's body in 1978. She didn’t recognize Moore when he introduced himself to her at church over a decade ago. Her brother had to tell her it was the same man she’d heard about for 30 years because Moore had never sought recognition for his deeds. They're married now and Moore describes their lives as having made "a complete circle."

“I always said he was the man that sat high and looked low, like God,” Una Moore jokes of how he used to greet her at church. 

They've been in each other's lives since 2007, officially. She’s only known about what happened with those five teenagers for about half that time.

The cactus terrarium

In retirement, Moore has taken to activities like driving to his cousin’s place in McClellanville and cutting the lawn without being asked to. He does the same with neighbors, rising before the sun and accomplishing more than the average person would in a day, his best friend Eddie Jamison says.

“It’s just the way he is.”

The tables in his West Ashley home are covered in picture frames and plants. One photo shows his mother's gravestone, which reads, “She would rather give than receive.”

There’s also a “hero award” — a plaque given to him by a family in his church to thank him for his help during a time of need — and a cactus terrarium.

Ken Moore

Una Moore holds the cactus terrarium her husband received more than a decade ago from a relative of one of the five people he saved in 1977 after their car ran off the road into a creek on James Island. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

Moore was at First Baptist a decade ago when a relative of one of the rescued teenagers brought the succulents by. He doesn’t remember whether they left a phone number but he's kept the terrarium since then.

Before he passed Ellis Creek that day he'd stopped to inspect the azaleas at a West Ashley gas station. He wonders now if it was destiny telling him to go home to James Island.

Every year in March, Moore asks himself the same question: Where are the teenagers now?

“Death was staring them right in the face,” he says.

There's a certain urgency to find the teens now. Moore's had his own stare down with the Grim Reaper. He can remember the rain from Hurricane Irma hitting his skin after he collapsed in his driveway due to clots in his lungs last September. The siren of the ambulance coming to deliver him was music to his ears.

It's reminded him that time is precious and it's given meaning to a story he saw on the news last month.

A New Jersey State Trooper pulled over a retired police officer with tinted windows. The trooper didn’t know it at the time but 27 years earlier the retired officer delivered a baby named Michael in a home on his old street.

“My name is Michael Patterson, sir,” the trooper said. “Thank you for delivering me.”

The trooper’s family had a reunion with the retired officer and like them, Moore wouldn't mind inviting the five he saved and their families to his church.

They've been on his mind for a long time. 

Reach Jesse Naranjo at 843-937-5764. Follow him on Twitter @jesselnaranjo.