William & Mary

Keith Havens, family, honored for their heroism

  • Honored as heroes
    Honored as heroes  Keith Havens (L) and his family receive certificates from American Red Cross representative Col. Frank Walker in recognition of their rescue of a drowning couple in June 2008  courtesy Bobby Lee, Albion College
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William & Mary alumnus and former swimming coach Keith Havens has won a 2010 Carnegie Hero Award for rescuing a couple from drowning off the Hawaiian island of Kauai in June 2008.

Havens ’76, MA ’79, and Tribe swim coach from 1981-84, was joined by sons Zaak and Zane as recipients. They also participated in the rescue of vacationers Jason and Brittany Sorenson.

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission became aware of the rescue through a Michigan newspaper delivered to it by a clipping service to which it subscribes, as well as the American Red Cross.

The Havens family, including wife Susan ’81, have also been awarded a Certificate of Merit, signed by President Barack Obama, from the American Red Cross. And they’ve received Certificates of Special Congressional Recognition. They have received a certificate from the Carnegie Commission, and their medals are expected to arrive shortly, a Carnegie spokesman said.

“What was driven home to us is how important it is for people to learn first aid and CPR skills, or lifeguarding skills if they are swimmers,” Havens said. “Our society needs to promote altruistic behavior, and so many lives could be saved with this type of training.

“We have gotten plenty of publicity for this rescue, but what we’d like people to learn from our story is how rewarding it is to help others. It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”
From a distance, Havens, now the swim coach at Albion College in Michigan, said he thought that the couple shouting and waving their arms seemed to be having a great time at Larsen’s Beach. He even suggested to Susan that they swim out to meet them.

But she had a different feeling about the couple. They weren’t frolicking. They were frantically calling for help.

Havens immediately jumped into the water, accompanied by his sons. Brittany Sorenson was about 300 feet from shore, caught in a powerful current that carried her seaward through a channel in the reef. Her husband, Jason, had been swept another 100 feet beyond Brittany, caught in the same current.

“We were aware that there was a bad rip current at Larsen’s Beach, and that several people had died due to the rip current,” Keith Havens said.

While his sons swam to Jason, Havens latched onto Brittany. Unable to swim out of the current by going parallel to the shore, Havens began swimming directly into it.

When they reached wadable water, Susan Havens helped Brittany ashore, and gave her husband a rescue tube to bring to Jason. As Jason held onto the tube, the four again swam against the current, Keith leading the way.

The journey was arduous, taking between 20 and 30 minutes, with Keith at one point swimming under water and pulling himself along jagged coral outcroppings. But the trio of rescuers returned Jason to shore, all safe except for some slight coral lacerations.

The mission of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission is two-fold: To recognize persons who perform acts of heroism in civilian life in the United States and Canada, and to provide financial assistance for those disabled and the dependants of those killed helping others.

The fund, administered by a commission in Pittsburgh, was founded more than a century ago.