Larry LaRue

Tacoma man nearly drowned — and then things got tougher

Walter Edwards was so excited about taking his girlfriend and her 12-year-old son camping on the Fourth of July holiday, he called one of his three sisters in California that morning to tell her.

Eight hours later, Edwards was the “unidentified Tacoma man” mentioned in media reports after a near drowning on the Nisqually River.

That was nearly six weeks ago, and for the 48-year-old Edwards and those who love him, it has been a time for tears, prayers and miracles.

“I could have had to go to two funerals,” said Conchita Beasley, the girlfriend with whom Edwards shared a Tacoma home. “I could have lost my son, Stephon, and Walter on that river.”

She had never been camping, nor had Stephon. But Edwards and his family — mom, dad and six kids — had camped throughout his childhood.

On July 4, he had supplies from Walmart and a reservation at Riverbend Campground in Olympia.

An hour after arriving, he inflated a rubber raft.

“Stephon couldn’t swim, but Walter said he could swim for both of them,” Beasley said. “They wanted me to go in that raft, but I don’t want anything to do with rivers.”

Off they went, and she watched them head down river. As they traveled, Beasley lost sight of them behind brush and trees.

“I only knew the raft had flipped when I heard people screaming,” Beasley said.

As she would learn later from her son and others, this is what happened:

Neither Edwards nor the boy wore life jackets, and both were caught in a strong current. Edwards swam to Stephon, pulled him toward shore and a group of tangled logs.

“Stephon said Walter pushed him up on a log, made sure he was hanging on,” Beasley said. “Then Walter drifted away.”

Other campers pulled the boy to shore. He spent the night in Providence St. Peter Hospital for hypothermia treatment.

As Edwards disappeared downstream, a camper leaped into his truck and sped ahead, found help and had at least four men waiting on a sandbar.

At some point, Edwards struck the back of his head on a log. He floated to that sandbar, unconscious and face down.

Quick hands snatched him from the water and began CPR until an ambulance arrived and medics took over.

Edwards was taken to St. Peter hospital and put on life support, a machine doing all his breathing.

The campground manager drove Beasley to the hospital. She called Edwards’ sister, Shirley Winzer, in California.

“When I heard her voice, I almost dropped the telephone,” Winzer said. “I knew it was bad.”

When Winzer called doctors at the hospital, she was told they didn’t expect her brother to live more than a few hours.

She and two of her sisters, Loretta Spence and Susan Edwards, booked flights.

Their brother was on life support when they all arrived. Doctors said he had been unresponsive since arrival.

What happened next they consider a miracle.

“We were in the hospital room talking and Walter heard our voices and turned his head toward us,” Spence said. “Tears were coming down his cheeks. Doctors and nurses came running in when they heard us, and they couldn’t believe it.”

Winzer’s response?

“I yelled, ‘Praise the Lord, that’s nothing but Jesus!’ ” she said.

The widespread Edwards clan, with parents, children and grandchildren across the country, began a prayer chain.

Walter Edwards remained on life support for three days, then began breathing on his own.

“The first thing he said was ‘How you doing?’ ” Beasley said. “Then he asked how Stephon was.”

That was just the beginning of Edwards’ comeback. Though he knew his family, girlfriend and Stephon, he was recognizing them by their voices.

He couldn’t see.

The medical report was grim: Edwards had survived cardiac arrest, an anoxic brain injury and cortical blindness.

Translated, his heart had stopped in the river, his brain had been deprived of oxygen, and the impact of something on his head had left him blind, though his pupils responded to light.

After two weeks at St. Peter, he was transferred to St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, near where he and Beasley lived. He began talking, walking, feeding himself and regaining memories of his life, including what happened the day he nearly died.

“I remember putting Stephon on that log, but nothing after that,” he said.

Last week, he was released. Sisters Winzer and Spence are taking him home to Merced, California, for more rehabilitation.

Doctors cannot say whether he’ll regain all his memory or faculties, or whether he will be able to return to his job transporting patients between the veterans hospitals in Lakewood and Seattle. But his sight has improved.

“I told him I’d even go camping again, but I wouldn’t go near the water,” Beasley said.

“Me, either,” Edwards responded.

Winzer believes her brother will continue his recuperation.

“Doctors know medicine,” she said. “God knows miracles.”