Photo by Carlton Fletcher
LEESBURG, Ga. -- John and Tammy Eunice are making good on a promise.
On Jan. 17 of this year, three days into what would be a harrowing 17-day search for their son, the Eunices vowed they would personally thank the more than 20 agencies that took part in the search for James Eunice, who'd fallen out of a boat while duck hunting with a friend at Valdosta's Ocean Pond Fishing Club.
The popular 17-year-old Valdosta High School student's body was discovered on Jan. 31, and his devastated parents have dealt with that unthinkable tragedy by raising funds to aid with future rescue attempts ... and by visiting the men and women who took part in trying to save James.
"This is a story we wish we didn't have to tell," John Eunice told Lee County Fire Department Capt. Bobby Spencer and members of the Lee Community Emergency Response Team's dive squad Wednesday afternoon. "But we wanted to tell you a little bit about the young man you helped search for."
The Eunices showed LFD Chief James Howell and the CERT team members who took part in the rescue effort -- Spencer; Kyle Lentz, who is also a firefighter; Ned Newcomb; Ralph Paustian, and Brian Bradshaw -- a six-minute video featuring a full-of-life James Eunice with coaches and members of the Valdosta High football team.
They also presented Spencer a plaque with an inspirational piece written by their then-16-year-old son in response to the death of a fellow student.
"He was always the first one on the football field and the last one off," Tammy Eunice said. "Everyone who knew him told us he was a special young man, and even though your efforts did not give us the outcome we so wanted, we'll never stop saying 'thank you' to you and to the others who searched for James."
John Eunice, who is retired military and now works in civil service at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, said his son and a friend were in a boat on a lake at Ocean Pond when James reached across his body for something that had fallen out of the boat. The seat he was in broke, and James fell into the 38-degree water.
"He managed to get his waders off, but he obviously used up all his energy doing that," John Eunice said. "The water temperature was just so cold. If they'd only been 20 yards closer to shore ...
"Because of the 38-degree water temperature, it was eight or nine hours before rescue personal got the equipment they needed that allowed them to get into the water. Some of them tried to go in, but their lips were blue in a matter of minutes. They just didn't have the gear necessary."
Even in their grief, the Eunices decided they'd do what they could to keep others in their community from going through a similar tragedy.
Their "Diving for James" campaign raised more than $148,000, which was used to buy thermal diving suits, a boat and other gear for the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department.
"As a parent, it's humbling to see how the community got behind our efforts to raise money that would help others and also honor James' memory," John Eunice said. "We had donations from 25 cents to $14,000. All the schools in the community, the churches, the businesses and so many individuals got involved."
Howell praised the efforts of the Lee dive team.
"We've managed to keep a dive rescue team active for more than 20 years now," the fire chief told the Eunices. "And while the members operate under the jurisdiction of the fire department, the participants are strictly volunteers."
Spencer told the Eunices their visit was meaningful to members of the dive team.
"For you to come here to us -- to take time out of your schedules -- to personally thank us, well, that goes a long way," the CERT team administrator said. "You could have come here with a check for $100,000, and it wouldn't have meant more than your personal thanks.
"We certainly don't do this for praise or for any other type of reward, but this is the first time something like this has happened in the years I've been doing this."
Added Lentz: "We played a small role in this effort, but we want you to know how important it was for us to be a part of it."
Asked how he, Tammy and James' older siblings, John and Lindsey, had found the strength to carry on despite their loss, John Eunice said his family persevered though "prayer and faith."
"We're still devastated," he said. "But prayer and faith are what get us through each day."