ARLINGTON, Va. --
“It all started with an early [canoe ride] up the Zambezi River,” said Cpl. Justin Trinidad, a Marine security guard with Detachment Harare, Zimbabwe, Marine Corps Embassy Security Group.
The day that began with a simple tour ended with Trinidad saving the life of another man on the safari after the group was attacked by a hippopotamus March 14.
Trinidad, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native, and his girlfriend, Kaylynn Hankey, were enjoying a guided trip up the Zambezi River when one of the guides began shouting that there was a hippo in the water and everyone needed to paddle to shore, said Trinidad. Three of the boats did just that, but Javier and Patricia Franco didn’t hear the warnings until the hippo approached them.
“All I saw was the couple being launched a few meters in the air,” said Trinidad.
The wife landed a safe distance from the animal, but the husband landed right on top of it, said Hankey. The hippo went back underwater, and no one wanted to move.
“We were still freaked out because we didn’t know where the hippo was,” said Trinidad.
Trinidad realized something had to be done when he noticed that Patricia was struggling inside her oversized life jacket and heard Javier complaining about his leg, both still in the water.
Trinidad said he thought to himself, “God, please watch over me, because I’m about to do something stupid.”
He instructed Hankey to help him get to the couple, rowing over where the hippo was last seen. Hankey said she wanted to turn back, but Trinidad encouraged her to keep going.
“He said to me ‘I need you to be strong, calm down, and help me out,’” said Hankey.
As they approached the couple in the water, Trinidad realized that Javier required immediate medical attention. They steered the canoe close enough for the couple to grab on to the side of the boat before it was swept away by the river’s strong current.
As they rode the current, Patricia managed to let go of the boat in shallower waters and wade to the riverbank as the rest of the group continued to be taken downriver by the current. Hankey, who remained in the boat, grabbed on to an overhanging tree in an attempt to stop the canoe, but fell out instead. She held on to the branch until one of the guides could help her to shore.
Trinidad managed to steer the canoe to a rock in a shallow part of the river as the injured man held on. After helping Javier into the boat and pulling it to shore, the Marine began to assess the situation.
“That’s when I noticed that his foot was hanging by a piece of skin,” said Trinidad.
One of the guides came out of the brush and was overwhelmed by the extent of Javier’s injury. Trinidad calmed him down and tried several options for a tourniquet, eventually using a neck strap from a pair of binoculars. With the bleeding under control, Trinidad and the guides tried to figure out how to get the man to a hospital.
A family on a fishing trip pulled up in an all-terrain vehicle an hour later. Trinidad helped load the injured man into the back of the car using a deflated canoe as a stretcher. More than four hours and a car and plane ride later, Javier was in stable condition at a hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Although Trinidad could not save the man’s foot, he said he was pleased when he heard how happy the Franco’s children were to be reunited with their parents.
“My dad died when I was little, so I was glad I could save [their] dad,” said Trinidad.
He doesn’t acknowledge his actions as a big deal. Trinidad said he saw worse things during his three deployments to Iraq as a field radio operator. But for those who witnessed the ordeal, including the Franco children, his actions were nothing short of heroic.
“My first instinct was to jump out of the boat,” said Hankey. “I was emotional, but Justin [Trinidad] stayed strong and helped us all. Honestly, if Justin wasn’t there, Javier would have died.”