Mission: Dominican Republic
Johnathan Esper’s own story —
Or how he nearly died but now he lives daily for Christ
It was Johnathan Espers' 15th birthday – Nov. 23, 1997 – when he went for a walk with a friend from home, Dave Lamos of Long Lake, N.Y. It was the first time Johnathan went on a vacation without his family (he has a mom, dad and four younger brothers). Dave took Johnathan to an overlook on 30-foot cliffs bordering the Gulf of Mexico. "Unnoticed to us, a huge ocean swell was surging toward our vantage point," Johnathan remembers. "Suddenly a wall of water rammed into us.
"There was no matching the ocean’s power. The next instant I can remember I was plummeting down amid a whiteout of saltwater spray.
"‘No! This has to be a dream!’ my mind screamed, and then all was silenced."
The pair were swept out to sea, along the way dragged over the serrated rock on the cliff side. They surfaced together offshore.
"I remember nothing until I found myself in the hand of God, instinctively treading water side-by-side with Dave, looking back with astonishment at the same cliff now 300 feet away," Johnathan says. "We both remained calm, and being good swimmers thanked the Lord for His protection thus far and begged for His mercy."
Dave was bleeding from multiple lacerations, including a huge gash on his forehead. Johnathan only had some minor cuts.
"Looking at my friend’s bleeding lacerations, I was glad that I had remained ignorant to whether this part of the sea held any sharks," says Johnathan, who later learned that the area was frequented by sharks who fed on the scraps dumped into the water by local restaurant workers.
What could they do? "There was nothing we could do except wait and pray, hoping a boat or person on the cliff would appear and then notice us," Johnathan says. "Swimming in to shore and trying to scale the unending cliffs would be suicidal since our bodies would be smashed against the rock and possibly be caught in the undercut alcoves just beneath the foaming surface."
It was at this point, facing a desperate situation, that Johnathan cried out: "God, if you save me, I will serve your forever!"
"I was already a Christian," he explains, "but at the time it was the only thing I thought that was fitting to say. Ironically, Dave made a similar plea and promise, recognizing that God put us in the sea and was the only One who could take us back out."
Fifteen minutes later, three local fishermen appeared on the cliff in the distance. Johnathan and Dave’s cries for help were drowned out by the constant roar of the storm-driven sea. "We could only pray that they would spot two little specks bobbing up and down between the waves," Johnathan says. "Fifteen minutes later, after treading water for 30 minutes, the fishermen finally noticed us."
Two of the fishermen left, while the other stayed shouting words of encouragement in Spanish. When the other two returned, they were carrying several Clorox bottles and a green palm branch that was tied to two bottles. They threw the bottles into the sea.
"Johnathan, swim in closer to shore and try to get those bottles before they float away," Dave instructed. "We need them. I’m too tired to go anywhere. But be careful not to get too close to those rocks."
Reluctantly, Johnathan swam away from his friend toward the bottles, which "miraculously" had not floated away. He grabbed the string of bottles and "feeling myself being drawn closer to the deadly rocks with each swell," he frantically kicked back out toward Dave.
Johnathan says the two were apart for one-half hour. When they were reunited, he found Dave coughing up water as he clung to the palm branch. "He later recounted to me what he said to God after I left him: ‘God, if You want me to have that branch, then You’ll have to make it come to me because I have no strength to get it.’ In between bobbing under the waves and fighting the urge to give up, he noticed the branch floating closer. Finally, he lifted his arms – all he had the strength to do – and the palm floated under him."
Together again, they could hear sirens coming from the shore. Three divers, equipped with snorkels and flotation rings, appeared on the cliff’s edge. Astonishingly, they jumped into the water.
"Our rescuers quickly swam out to us and replaced our Clorox bottles with the rings," Johnathan says. "Frankly, I had no idea how they were going to rescue us, much less themselves now. However, they escorted us closer to shore, where they asked me if would volunteer to let Dave be rescued first as he was now vomiting."
Johnathan said "OK" and watched as Dave was hoisted up the cliff on a rope that had been lowered from above. The rope was then lowered back down for Johnathan.
"I maintained my death grip until I was quickly hoisted up to dry ground," he says.
To add insult to injury, Johnathan needed to give his shorts to Dave, who’d taken off his pants in the water. As he made his way in boxer shorts past curious onlookers on the way to the ambulance, Johnathan recited Matthew 5:40-42 to himself: "And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
The ride to the hospital was likewise eventful – the drivers arguing over which way to go as they careened through the streets. Johnathan and Dave would be treated and released from the hospital, able to return home to surprise birthday cake. And a life recommitted to Christ.