When the man working at the Girdwood Tesoro Friday evening picked up the phone and heard his girlfriend’s broken voice, he looked across the highway and saw the EMS lights by the creek where she often brought her boys to play.
He started running.
It was just about 6:30 p.m. and there was one thing on his mind — Thomas, age 5.
While the next hour-and-a-half seemed to pass by in a blur, Sean Byers wondered afterwards why it had to take so long.
After he got the call that little Thomas had vanished on the banks of Glacier Creek, Byers said it couldn’t have taken him more than five or six minutes to run across the flats, through the dead forest and onto the beach where the creek meets Turnagain Arm. He said it seemed to make sense: If you wanted to find something in the water, go to the farthest point. So he ran.
He knows the paths — he said he walks the forest regularly and often. He passed rescuers near a bend in the creek and wondered why they were turning back so far from the mouth of the stream. He kept running until finally, near where the creek reaches the ocean, he saw something in the water. Was it his boy? Byers has poor eyesight — for a split second he said he wasn’t sure. Another second later he knew it was Thomas.
He can’t swim — he shouted to the search and rescue crews — but they were too far upstream and Thomas was still in the water, so Byers said he plunged into the creek up to his thighs. It was icy and much stronger than he expected, but he reached the little boy and lifted him out of the current.
The 5-year-old’s boots had been knocked off in the water. His pants had been pulled down around one ankle and his water-sodden t-shirt was nearly off. He was limp in Byers’ arms. As Byers carried the child back to the bank of the creek, he lost his footing and fell into the creek up to his neck. For a moment, all he felt was the freezing, rushing water pushing them both towards Turnagain Arm.
“I’m thinking, ‘This is it Thomas, we’re going together,’” Byers recalled. “At least I got you.”
Miraculously, his feet locked back onto the riverbed and he clambered up onto the shore, laying the dark-haired boy on the beach. Byers said he wondered why the rescue crews were still so far away. He tried shouting and throwing his orange work vest into the air to catch their attention, but his voice was drowned out by the wind along Turnagain Arm. He didn’t know if he remembered the right way to perform CPR, he said, but he began pumping Thomas’s chest. Water and snot flowed from the boy’s nose and mouth.
Again, Byers tried to catch the attention of the search and rescue teams closer to the highway. It finally seemed to pay off, and he said a tiny boat carrying several people began to make its way down the creek. It seemed like an eternity.
“I was just trusting they had the strength, the knowledge and the education on how to save a boy’s life,” Byers said.
The watercraft finally arrived and the team began performing CPR. Girdwood Fire Department Chief William Chadwick said they were swimmers trained in water rescues: He said they don’t carry radios because they’re too bulky, too fragile and may become snagged on underwater obstacles.
So when the swimmers arrived on the beach around 7 p.m., Byers said he was told to run back up to the highway and tell other crews about the location. Winded and soaked, Byers said he ran until he heard whistles coming from the beach behind him. He turned to look back — wondered why the boat was still on the shore — then ran back to where Thomas still lay on the beach.
Again, he said rescue crews told him to run and alert the people on the highway. Again, he started to run back towards the road — this time alongside another rescuer. Running in wet and frozen clothes, Byers fell behind and said he noticed two troopers approaching the beach on the wrong side of the creek. He shouted at them to go back and cross to the right side, but they didn’t seem to hear and at that point, Byers said he didn’t have time for anything but getting back to the highway.
When he reached the road and the troopers blocking traffic, one question seemed to burn into his mind.
“What kind of search and rescue doesn’t carry a radio? A cell phone?” he asked. “I just don’t understand.”
Then he found his girlfriend with troopers near the bridge over the creek, and held her as the flurry of activity whirled around them.
Courtney Smith said she and her three boys were throwing sticks into Glacier Creek moments before her oldest son disappeared. They’d played in the same spot countless times before. But this time, when it was time to go and she strapped her two younger boys into their seats and turned to load Thomas into the car, he was nowhere to be found. She prayed he was in the bushes, hoped he had gone to throw one more stick, screamed his name — there was no response.
She said she called 911, and ran down the bank of the creek as an automated hold message played in her ear. There was an alder thicket 200-300 feet away, filled with sticks that could lure a little boy. Smith said she ran towards the trees as the seconds seemed like forever and the recorded message replayed three times. Finally someone picked up the phone.
According to Alaska State Troopers, 911 calls in Girdwood are routed through the Anchorage Police Department before being transferred to either the fire department or troopers in the Matanuska Valley or on the Kenai Peninsula. Smith was eventually transferred to dispatchers in Soldotna. Then, after a frantic phone call to her mother, she called Byers at the gas station nearby.
AST said it took approximately 30 minutes for rescue crews to reach the place where Thomas lay on the beach. It took another hour after that to medevac him to the Anchorage hospital where he later passed away.
But he had been pulled from the water in the time it took Byers to run from the Tesoro station to the beach a half mile away.
Now his family is left only with questions, and memories of a little boy with big eyes who loved to be outdoors.
In photos and videos, Thomas smiles and plays in the Alaska sunshine with his two younger brothers; climbing rocks, giving a thumbs-up to the camera at the McHugh Creek overlook, handing a flower to his mother.
And he loved to tell people his name and age: “Thomas, age 5,” he would say.
“All I can hear is, ‘Thomas, age 5,’” Byers said, voice breaking. “I need him to say, ‘Thomas, age 6.’”
Tuesday, the 5-year-old’s loved ones said their final goodbyes. They chose to donate his organs; Smith said she hoped they could help another little boy or girl. Maybe another child would have more time to throw sticks into a creek on a sunny day or pick flowers for their mother.
Byers said he needs to go back to Glacier Creek — he wants to find Thomas’s boots, and he wants to find the place where the bank crumbled under the boy’s feet or was just slippery enough to send him into the water. He said he needs to know.
And four days after the surging creek claimed Thomas Petty’s young life, his family holds to the belief that everyone comes in to the world for a reason.
“I believe Thomas’s reason is to help other kids,” Byers said. “And he is.”