The girls wanted to play, and they were impatient — more so because the backdoor sticks and needs an adult’s touch to open it — so Sissy McClam, garbed in a bathrobe, let them out into her backyard bordering the marsh and then went to her room to get dressed.
She was closing her bedroom door Monday morning when the girls barged in. She was surprised to see them so soon.
More surprised yet by the news they delivered.
Lilly Pike, 8, the neighbors’ child, looked calmly at McClam and said there was a man in the marsh yelling for help.
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McClam dressed quickly, grabbed her phone off the dresser and rushed to the backyard of her Sycamore Street home in Beaufort, still wearing a towel over her wet blond hair.
She hurried toward the marsh and looked into the tall grass. She strained to see where the yelling was coming from. She saw nothing.
She cupped her hands to her mouth and called out to the man.
Are you OK? she said.
I’m stuck, came the reply.
Are you in a kayak? she said.
No, he said. I’m stuck.
Then he said something about a dog.
I’m calling 911, she said.
McClam had been stuck in pluff mud once, when she was in her 20s. She’d been out boating with family and friends, and the tide had receded. They’d beached the boat far from The Sands’ shore, and she’d hopped out to try to walk to land.
She quickly sank into the mud.
Her family and friends formed a human chain, anchored by the boat, and pulled her to safety.
“I got cut up with oysters when I got stuck out there,” McClam said Tuesday as she smoked a cigarette. “I was feeling every part of what he was feeling,” she said of the man Lilly discovered in the marsh.
She kept talking to the man, asked him to wave his arms so she could see him. She could see only his hands over the marsh grass. He waved a hat, but it was hard to see — its color blended with that of the grass.
Beaufort Water Search and Rescue is called out “about three to five times a year” to rescue people stuck in pluff mud, the unit’s skipper, Clay Emminger, said. It’s usually someone in a kayak that gets stuck, he said, but he recalled a recent rescue in October, when a man tried to flee Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputies by running into a marsh.
“One thing about (pluff mud) is it’s so dense (that) when you enter it, it creates a suction on your body,” Emminger said. “It’s soft, but dense. And moist. It’s very misleading.”
Sometimes you can walk on it, he said, and other times it sucks you in like quicksand.
McClam’s 911 call came in around 9:45 a.m. Monday, Emminger said, and he and other first responders arrived shortly thereafter.
When they cranked the rescue airboat’s giant fan engine on the shore, McClam heard a dog’s bark coming from the marsh.
McClam worried the tide was coming in. Emminger knew water temperatures in the 50-degree range — as they were Monday — could cause hypothermia. He and a comrade motored out to the man, careful to watch out for the hidden creeks and tributaries in the marsh that, when hit at the wrong angle, can capsize an airboat.
As the rescuers neared the man, the barking intensified.
“He was holding the dog by his collar,” Emminger said, recalling pulling the boat alongside the man and what appeared to be a German shepherd. “And the dog wasn’t stuck. He was sitting on top of the mud. That’s why he was holding on to his collar; he was afraid he was going to run away again.”
The story — which Emminger would later hear from another first responder after the man and dog were safely ashore — was that the dog had escaped from the man and run onto the marsh. The man followed, quickly lost his shoes, kept going and eventually got stuck.
“He was up to his belly button,” Emminger said. “He must have run out there about 300 yards.”
People can escape pluff mud, Emminger said, by laying flat across the mud and wiggling free, then crawling out.
“(But) when you’re up to your waist,” Emminger said, “that’s a long way in the mud.”
The tide would have flooded the area by noon, Beaufort/Port Royal Fire Chief Reece Bertholf said in a news release Monday.
Lilly had been playing on a swing in the backyard when she heard the man’s cry for help. Her friend — 5-year-old Isabelle, McClam’s daughter — had ridden her pink bicycle from the backdoor to the swing. The bike was in the same spot a day later, near a break in the trees with a view of the marsh.
Lilly’s grandmother and guardian, Connie Peeples, said she was proud of her granddaughter.
“Because she stayed calm and did what she was supposed to do,” Peeples said. “She told an adult immediately.”
And, Peeples said, she was glad Lilly learned firsthand of the dangers of the marsh and pluff mud.
“I think somebody up there a lot bigger than us made sure all these parts and pieces came together,” Peeples said of the rescue.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday meant the girls were out of school, able to be in the backyard playing on a Monday morning.
Lilly had convinced an initially reluctant Isabelle to go outside and play, the women said.
And it just so happened that Lilly had spent the night at McClam’s on Sunday — only the second time she’d done so, Peeples said of the impromptu sleepover.
As Peeples said, “It was a special occasion.”