The San Diego City Council proclaimed Oct. 23 to be “Lifeguard Marc Brown Day,” and councilmembers Sherri Lightner and David Alvarez presented Brown with the USLA’s highest honor — the Medal of Valor — to recognize his extraordinary act of bravery on a rainy night in November 2011.
The rescue began when Brown and his sergeant, Troy Keach, were called to duty from their Mission Bay headquarters to the Tijuana River Valley. According to the emergency dispatcher, a suspected illegal immigrant was trapped inside a drainpipe near a water-treatment facility at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Under the perilous circumstances, Brown’s qualifications as a river-rescue team member warranted him the role as the lead rescuer at the scene.
“The pipe drains from the top and it comes down this giant cement culvert at the bottom,” Brown explained. “There is a cage to protect all the debris, so you’ve got tires, wood, plastic contaminants — anything you can possibly think of coming from the hillsides in Tijuana is coming down that pipe.”
During heavy rains, Border Patrol agents open floodgates to a number of drainpipes, allowing water to dump into catch basins in the Tijuana River Valley to prevent flooding in Tijuana. On days with heavy downpours, immigrants attempting to illegally enter into the U.S. from Mexico use the drainpipes as passageways into the Tijuana River Valley.
At this particular catch basin, a steel cage capped the drainpipe opening, shielding rescuers from the man trapped 20 feet below.
“There’s a two-foot opening that this person squeezed into and went down. He landed on a ledge that was no wider than a step with rebar coming out of the footing,” said Brown. “As I got down to him, he was standing there hanging onto this piece of nylon rope that the Border Patrol had thrown down to him.”
With hundreds of gallons of water quickly rushing into the pipe, the man was quite literally teetering on the precipice of life and death.
“It was just a giant, black hole. The pipe extends another quarter of a mile underneath the ground,” he said. “Inside the pipe, there is just a bunch of debris. You’ve got rocks, boulders — whatever you can think of is in there. Everything in there is going to be a hazard, or it’s going to be something you’re going to get snagged upon and basically drown.”
The darkness in the pipe and the strength of the water hammering down impaired Brown’s senses throughout the rescue.
“I couldn’t see. I’m having to lower down and have water completely dousing on top of me, so my sense of whereabouts are skewed,” Brown said. “As I’m getting lowered, I don’t want to knock him off the ledge. It’s a small, two-foot-by-eight-inch step that he’s stepping on and he’s being pounded by water.”
To make matters worse, the pipe was bound to fill up at any second, creating an inherent sense of urgency.
After several long minutes, Brown was able to strap a chest harness on the man and make the arduous journey upward together.
“Coming back up, you’re just meeting so much resistance. It was even more of a challenge because you fight your [harness] system, and you have hundreds and hundreds of gallons of water that’s just knocking on top of you that you’re fighting as they’re pulling you up,” he said. “All the forces are going against you, and you’re just hoping, ‘Please, something don’t break.’”
Just minutes after Brown’s successful rescue, the pipe overflowed with water. Had Brown delayed on any number of factors, the rescuers may have been pulling up two lifeless bodies instead. Thanks to Brown’s unwavering confidence, level-headedness and quality training, both men were retrieved from the pipe unscathed and Brown was appropriately honored for his selfless act of courage and skill.
Despite the peril, Brown said he had no reservations about going down to execute the swift-water rescue.
“It just comes with the job. That’s why I’m on the river-rescue team. That’s one of the things that — being a lifeguard — you love to do is to help people and save people,” he said. “That’s what you’re in it for. You’re not in it for the accolades or the awards or anything like that.”
With wife Kerry and two young children — Bridget, 3, and Nathan, 1 — at home, Brown is cognizant of the fact that his family needs him to be a father and husband, not necessarily a hero or a cowboy.
“You have precious cargo that wants to see you on a daily basis at home, so just keep that as a mental note in the back of your mind. Do your job and do your job well, but don’t be reckless,” he said. “If you can do what you can do based on your training ability and your experience and the equipment that you have, then that’s what’s going to make a successful rescue. You’re not going to run into a burning building without any rescue experience and without any gear. That’s just suicide.”
Despite his mantra of “Don’t be a hero,” Brown set himself apart as one of San Diego’s lifesaving forces, a man who voluntarily risked his life to save another and creating for himself a heroic role in the eyes of the community.