Tennessee teen rescues drowning angler

Daniel Baldwin was just hoping to record some fish catches, but his quick action to save a drowning man captured much more.

The 19-year-old is being hailed as a hero after pulling Ray Ayers from Tennessee’s Norris Lake last Monday. Baldwin, a University of Tennessee student, captured the rescue on his chest-mounted GoPro camera, and the harrowing video is making the rounds on news and social media sites.

 “I was fishing for smallmouth with my GoPro turned on hoping to get some footage for my YouTube channel,” Baldwin said, “but I walked away with something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”

Baldwin, who is from nearby Harrogate, had just arrived at Baylor’s Bridge ramp off Highway 25E in Tazewell when Ayers launched his boat. He was concentrating on his fishing when Ayers returned from parking his truck and fell in while trying to to climb into his boat.

“I was looking toward the ramp trying to watch my line and the Shakey Head, and I heard a splash and looked over,” Baldwin said. “He might be up on shore, but no, he was in there pretty deep. And he was freaking out. He didn’t know how to swim. I threw my rod down and went out and got him.”

At first, Baldwin said there were skeptics of the incident as the video showed Ayers wasn’t far from the riprap. There’s a steep dropoff to 25 feet next to the ramp. “Even though he was only 10 feet from the shore, he was in 10 feet of water,” Baldwin said.

The video shows Baldwin jumping into the water after the flailing man and the 90-second frantic struggle to bring him to shore.  

“It felt like 90 hours,” Baldwin said. “At one point, he starts to paddle. Even though he doesn’t know how to swim, that’s the body’s first instinct.”

Baldwin said both men are roughly the same size, and he knew Ayers, in his panicked state, could pull him down. Rescue documents state an active drowning victim’s only concern is getting air and in fear he/she might pull the rescuer under, resulting in two victims.

“I actually had to push off of him, not trying to hurt him or make his situation worse, but once I was in the water, I had to figure out how to get a different angle to get ahold of him,” Baldwin said. “I was trying to keep myself calm. I was trying to think, ‘Remember how to swim, remember how to swim. Alright, grab ahold of him. Alright, let’s try to get to the bank.’ Finally my feet started to feel something. ‘OK, there’s a rock. Try to get another rock with my left foot. OK, got two feet.”

Both men were fine but breathing heavily as they gathered themselves on shore. Baldwin’s video showed his hand resting on rocks under water.

 “Lord, I thank you,” Ayers can be heard saying. “I woulda sure drowned if somebody hadn’t been here. I don’t even swim.”

It was several minutes after reaching shore before Baldwin looked down and realized he recorded the incident on his GoPro Hero 1. Baldwin posted the rescue to his YouTube page, Fishing with Leinad, and it’s received nearly 45,000 views so far. The story has appeared on Knoxville TV news casts as well as some national news outlets. Baldwin has received plenty of positive feedback.

“Most people have just been calling me a hero because the fact I’m 19, didn’t even know this man, but was willing to go risk my life to go save this stranger,” he said. “And I realize I risked my own life -- there was a couple times he pulled me under.

“I’ve earned the respect of a lot of Tennessee anglers this week. Lot of people I didn’t really know before are saying you can go fishing with me.”

Baldwin fishes BFL tournaments, posting his best finish of fifth this spring as a co-angler on Cherokee Lake. He said his big take away from this incident is safety.

“It shows to me exactly how important it is how to always have a life jacket,” he said, ironic since he works at the Sevierville Bass Pro Shops in the marine department, selling trolling motors, depth finders and, yep, life jackets. “Don’t take life for granted. That’s all that matters.”

It’s also ironic that Bassmaster Elite pro David Walker, who hails from Sevierville, rescued a man this year during practice for the Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell. Baldwin knew of that incident and was asked about any connection.

“Why don’t you go with, those east Tennessee boys saving people,” he said.

Like Walker, who kind of had to be convinced he actually saved Brandon Ardister’s life when he pulled him from frigid water after the Georgia man’s boat sank, Baldwin is only playing the hero card from his camera.

 “I haven’t really thought about it much. I haven’t really tried to make myself feel like a hero,” he said. “I’m kind of like David is, being kind of modest about that whole thing.”

The video was definitely fortuitous, he said. Several years ago, the pastor at his church gave Baldwin the camera to capture his fishing exploits.

 “I love GoPro cameras,” he said. “It’s helped me get a lot of great fishing videos.”

He normally uses it with its waterproof case to show underwater footage of him releasing fish, but said, “I had it on there for a better reason that day, I guess.”

Yes, it’s a pretty special video. Baldwin said his plans include entering the video in Bassmaster.com’s GoPro Best Catch Contest and to meet up again with Ayers, although under much better circumstances.

 “I’m in touch with people who know Ray, and it looks like I’ll be able to fish with him this week,” he said.

There will be life jackets, and Baldwin said he’ll definitely get a friend to video what he expects to be an emotional get-together.