Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn
Kicking a plume of dust into the morning air, a Chevy Tahoe veered off Route 17 South near Elizabeth City, North Carolina, hit a ditch, rolled and ejected its driver. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Nancy Wilson witnessed the accident as she was headed north on the same highway June 7, 2017. Like most mornings, she was on her way to drop her 20-month-old daughter Ayla to daycare, then to her job as a storekeeper at Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City.
Wilson, a Hertford resident and Clearwater, Florida, native, immediately pulled over and turned on her hazard lights. She then called 911 and notified the dispatcher that at least one person had been ejected from the crashed vehicle between the Foreman Bundy and Okisko Road exits in Elizabeth City.
Wilson took Ayla from her car seat and joined a small group gathered at the edge of a drainage ditch filled with murky brown water several yards from where the Tahoe left the road, to let them know help was on the way.
The group could not see where the ejected driver lay, but they could clearly hear the distressed man calling out for help. Wilson said she could hear the confusion and pain in his voice, coming from some tall grass and cattails on the other side of the water, about 20 feet from where they stood.
Wilson decided at that moment to ask a woman dressed in office attire to hold Ayla. Despite being warned about snakes, and that she’d get stuck in the mud, Wilson jumped into the water without hesitation.
“I grew up in Florida and Hawaii,” said Wilson. “I’m used to blue or clear water at the beach. My friends like to make fun of me because I won’t swim in lakes or rivers where you can’t see the bottom.”
She trudged along the muddy bottom of the waist-deep water and soon found herself on the other side of the ditch. She continued to follow the agonized sounds of the man as she pushed aside cattails and made her way through thick, five-foot blades of grass. About 15-feet in, she found him lying face down, his head just inches from more water.
He begged her to please help him up and indicated he was hurting all over his body. Wilson calmly told him she could not; that his injuries might get worse if he moved at all, but to wait for paramedics to arrive.
He told Wilson there was no one else in the vehicle, but she double-checked to make sure.
While they waited to hear the wailing of sirens, Wilson stayed with the man and talked in an effort to calm him yet keep him awake. Once the paramedics arrived, Wilson explained everything she knew about the situation, and returned to her daughter.
The man was airlifted to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, for treatment.
After providing a statement to law enforcement, she called in to work to explain the situation, took her daughter to daycare, went home to clean up, and reported to work.
“Those of us who work with Petty Officer Wilson daily understand her kindness, compassion and generosity,” said one of her supervisors, Chief Petty Officer Penny Benson. “To hear of her selfless actions and quick response to such an event is not surprising at all.”
“Wilson demonstrates humility, and is highly intelligent and brave,” said Petty Officer First Class Joshua Brown, another of her supervisors. “Because of her compassion for others I’m sure she’d do the same thing again without hesitation because she understands the value of life. It is a pleasure to work with a human being like her.”
The injured motorist, a Hertford man, was last reported to be in improving condition, though further details are not available at this time.
“In the end, there really wasn’t much of anything I could do for him,” said Wilson. “All I knew was that I couldn’t stand there and listen to him cry out in pain. I had to get across that water to see if there was anything I could do.”
Wilson’s Coast Guard career has largely been spent behind a desk, keeping track of Coast Guard budgets and accounting, but her willingness to act in the face of uncertainty, discomfort and danger is likely why she joined the service in the first place.