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‘My dad is a hero,’ Father drowns while trying to save 2 children at Holden Beach

Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 5:07 PM EDT
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HOLDEN BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - A North Carolina man drowned while trying to save two children in the waters off Holden Beach Tuesday evening, according to officials.

A news release states that emergency personnel in Holden Beach were called to a water rescue in the 600 block of Ocean Boulevard West around 5:30 p.m.

The victim, 47-year-old Van Whitley of Mt. Gilead, went into the ocean to save a boy and girl, and later died at the scene. His death was ruled an “accidental drowning,” the release stated.

“Our hearts go out [to] the family and friends of Mr. Whitley,” Holden Beach Police Chief Jeremy Dixon stated in the release.

While emergency responders identified the victim as Van Whitley, his family knew him as “Allen” and will remember him as a hero.

As the Whitleys packed up their beach house to return home Wednesday, there was an empty seat in the car for the trip back to Mt. Gilead.

“I thought it was a nightmare at first but now it’s a reality. He’s not gonna be coming home. I just don’t want families to make the same mistakes we did,” said Maci Whitley. “ I was scared for my life. I thought I was going to drown.”

Eleven-year-old Maci and her 12-year-old friend, Thomas, realized they were trapped in a rip current when a wave crashed over their heads and they could no longer touch the ocean floor, turning a beautiful day at the beach into a frantic fight for life.

Family members quickly realized something was terribly wrong as they watched the kids struggling to get back to shore.

“All we could see were their heads bobbing up and down and Maci was screaming,” said Thomas’s mother, Charity Dalton.

That’s when Thomas’s mother Charity Dalton, Maci’s father Allen Whitley, and another adult, Seth Alderman, jumped into the water to save the kids.

Everyone made it out alive, except Allen.

“It could’ve been very different, and I’m grateful to both of them. [Allen] fought until he knew that they were fine, he fought until he knew they were safe,” said Dalton through tears.

Allen’s wife says that’s just the kind of person he was, always putting others before himself. Allen was a father of eight, and also had a grandchild.

“He would do anything for anybody. He was a man of God. He was a deacon. He was ready to serve and help anybody. He was the best person I know,” said Allen’s wife, Shannon Whitley.

The children are physically okay, but everyone in the water that day will live with the emotional scars of what happened.

“I feel like a miracle to be honest I feel like I shouldn’t even be sitting here right now,” said Thomas Dalton. “You’re never above drowning. Everybody, anybody can drown, even Olympic swimmers can drown. Drowning is a lot quieter because your body seals your airways, making it so you can’t scream because it’s trying to protect your organs from the water. It’s a lot quieter than you think and it could happen to anyone.”

A God-fearing man giving up his life to save others, a testament to his faith, and a sacrifice his daughter will always remember.

“My dad is a hero. I wish there were more people out there like him,” said Maci. “Anybody can get stuck in a rip current and drown, anybody, and it had to be my dad.”

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