The recent death of an award-winning sushi chef could have escalated into a larger tragedy but for the efforts of a 15-year-old boy and a marine conservation officer, according to police and witnesses to the drowning.
Police hailed the bravery of Beha Hansson, 15, and marine officer Alan Mackay, who tried in vain to save Mongkol Srilamai before helping another struggling swimmer to shore.
Mr. Srilamai, 44, a chef at Thai Orchid restaurant, drowned in waters off Rum Point Drive on Ash Wednesday.
Witnesses described how he and two boys, and another man, Sadawut “Woody” Sriling, who tried to assist them, were all in jeopardy as strong currents pulled them out to sea.
Mr. Sriling hailed Beha Hansson and Mr. Mackay as heroes who saved his life.
He said, “The boy was so brave. They are both my heroes.”
Mr. Sriling, a waiter who worked with Mr. Srilamai at Thai Orchid, said he was sad for the loss of his friend, who he said was a talented chef and a good person. He had been on the island for 11 years and has a wife and two children living in Thailand.
Mr. Srilamai got into difficulties while snorkeling with Beha and Simon Hansson, 8, in waters off the Hansson family home on Rum Point Drive, where several friends had gathered for lunch.
Beha Hansson said they had been swimming in front of their home when they realized how rough the conditions were.
“We decided to come back,” he said, “but the current was dragging us out to the open sea.”
He said the current pulled them out through an unmarked channel in the reef and it quickly became clear that Mr. Srilamai was in serious trouble. He said he told his brother, who was wearing a life jacket, to try to swim back toward shore, while he attempted to assist the drowning man.
“I took him across the reef to where the corals are and we could get air. I took off his snorkel so he could get more air but he was not breathing well,” he said.
At that point, he said, another man from the lunch party came to help and they swam pulling Mr. Srilamai back toward shore where they were met by marine officer Alan Mackay, who had dived into the water to assist.
Mr. Mackay said he heard the distress call on the police radio and was first to arrive on the scene. He said he battled through surf and dreadful currents to reach the men.
“I went to the aid of the young kid who was holding on to the guy who was struggling. I gave him [Mr. Srilamai] rescue breaths and tried to revive him as we kicked him back towards shore.”
At the same time, Beha Hansson says he noticed another man who had swum out to try to help and was swept beyond the reef line and was in trouble.
“I swam to him and pulled him in towards shore. We were struggling a little bit and the marine officer came to help us.”
Mr. Mackay said he ensured Mr. Srilamai was receiving CPR and then dived back in to help the second swimmer in distress.
Mr. Sriling told the Cayman Compass he swam out to help and got dragged out to sea.
“The waves were so high, I didn’t think I could make it,” he said. “The 15-year-old held my hand and we swam together and the marine officer came out and helped us too.
“He is such a brave boy because the sea was very rough. They are both my heroes.”
The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service released a statement Friday commending both Mr. Mackay and Beha Hansson for their “brave efforts” in preventing a second tragedy.
Mr. Sriling said his friend Mongkol Srilamai was much loved on the island and would be missed by his friends and his family home in Thailand. He said he was a regular entrant in the Taste of Cayman festival, helping Thai Orchid to win a number of awards over the years. He also enjoyed running and going to church.
“He is a very good person, a good friend, a hard worker,” Mr. Sriling said. “He had such a nice personality. Every customer loved him. He was always happy, always making people laugh.”