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Former Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling reflects on near-death experience after boating accident

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Billy Keyserling

Billy Keyserling survived a serious boating accident in May. Charles Ferillo Jr./Provided

BEAUFORT — So many things came together to save Billy Keyserling after a boating accident. But instead of perceiving himself special or fated to live, he's walked away with two different feelings: humility and compassion. 

"It gives you a little bit of perspective of how unimportant you are," Keyserling said, a little more than a month after passersby pulled him unconscious from the water.

"If I take an hour to stop and smell the roses, or to call my significant other and say let's go out to lunch ... that's perfectly all right."

Keyserling was elected mayor of Beaufort in 2008, 2012 and 2016. He previously served in the S.C. House of Representatives.

After deciding not to run again in 2020, the 74-year-old pursued a number of projects. They included one on affordable housing and another related to Reconstruction and confronting our nation's history. 

When he first woke up in the hospital a day-and-a-half after being resuscitated, all those projects made Keyserling feel depressed and overwhelmed. 

But after a few days of simply trying to keep up his oxygen, eat, move and get a little sunshine, his perspective shifted.

"I realized, I didn't create the problem. I can't solve the problem alone. It's going to be here long after me," he said. 

His epiphany did not strike Keyserling as demeaning. Instead, it made his days manageable. 

"All I had to do was to take care of myself, and after about three or four days with that level of focus, my head really cleared and I actually came up with solutions to all those problems that I thought were so overwhelming," he said. 

Keyserling doesn't think he can exactly call nearly drowning a good experience; however, he does appreciate the opportunity to see the world with new eyes. A little more than a month after the accident, he said, "Tomorrow, I'll be 5 weeks old."

Series of fortunate events

One of the fortunate parts of his near-death experience is that he doesn't remember it. 

Last he can recall, he and his brother, Paul Keyserling, were sailing his new boat, an 18-foot Marshall Sanderling catboat with a single, gaff-rigged sail and shallow centerboard.

They were on the Beaufort River on May 21 around lunchtime.

Later, Paul Keyserling explained that a gust of wind twisted the sail and pushed the boat over.

"There wasn't a thing in the world we could have done," Billy Keyserling said. 

The two men fell into the water. 

Passengers on a nearby boat, including a nurse, Lexie Murray Benton, saw the Keyserling brothers. They offered to tow the capsized boat to a sandbar. 

Billy Keyserling dove under to find a line, and somehow ingested a lot of water. He came to the surface, but then quickly started to slip below. 

The nurse, Benton, said that two men from her group, Mikey Covington and Chris Jarrell, jumped into the river.

They were able to keep Keyserling's head above water and get him onto another nearby boat. 

Benton leaped from hers to perform CPR. "No matter how many times I've done this at work, it's just not the same in real life," Benton said. "It was truly the scariest thing I have witnessed."

Kesyerling was blue and did not have a pulse.

Benton and another nurse who was passing by continued chest compressions until the boat docked and firefighters could take over. 

"The only thing they could do was work me as hard as they could," Keyserling said of the firefighters. "They broke the ribs."

They also got him breathing again.

For Keyserling, the rescue is a story of the right people being at the right place at the right time.

"The hospital has a dock that was five minutes away, there were people in the river to help us — good Samaritans, strangers. We have a darn good, well-trained fire department and hospital. ... Everything just sort of aligned, so I guess it's what was supposed to happen," he said. 

Ross Vezin, deputy chief of operations for the Beaufort/Port Royal Fire Department, offered a similar interpretation. 

"What happened on this day is the epitome of teamwork. You had bystanders, fire departments personnel, EMS personnel, and hospital staff coming together to save a life," he wrote to The Post and Courier. "When it comes together like that, we can celebrate success stories such as this."

The other takeaway

By now, the end of June, Keyserling's health is mostly back to normal. 

His ribs are healing, and he's using a device to help eliminate the last bit of fluid in his lungs.

The other day, he visited the fire department to speak to the team who rescued him. "I just thanked them for making me alive again," he said.

Reflecting on the experience from their point of view, Keyserling was struck by the stress first responders experience. Again and again, they go into situations not knowing what to expect; yet, they are expected to save a life.

"It just sent shivers down my back, the dedication and the training and the discipline of these first responders," Keyserling said. 

At the same time, he realized that not everyone who happens upon an emergency is prepared to respond — including him. 

Although Keyserling had always intended to take one of the free CPR classes offered by the Red Cross, the Marines or the fire department, he never made it a priority. 

"What if I had been in a powerboat and I came upon someone in the same distress that I was in, and I had never followed through on my plan to take CPR?" he said. "And I was helpless and couldn't help that person?"

Although Keyserling is taking life easier these days, he's already talking to the Beaufort city manager and other groups about a public service campaign to push CPR. 

"There's so many of us who live on the water. It's just stupid not to be prepared for such events," he said. 

Kelly Jean Kelly covers Hilton Head Island and Beaufort for The Post and Courier. She's also worked as a broadcast journalist and a fellowship leader for The OpEd Project, which seeks to expand the range and diversity of voices in the public conversation.