VIRGINIA BEACH - Amy Mack bobbed in the Chesapeake Bay on Thursday afternoon, holding up the head of a scared 12-year-old girl.
"It hurts," Mack later recalled the girl telling her. "I don't want to drown."
"We've got you," the firefighter paramedic responded. "We're not going to let anything else happen to you."
Down below, police divers puzzled over how to free the girl's impaled leg from between two boat propellers, where it had become lodged in an accident about 2 p.m. Mack said she'd never seen anything like it.
Neither had police diver George E. Yates.
Yates had been home relaxing for his birthday, with his police scanner on as always, when he heard the news and flew from his house, diving gear in tow.
When he arrived - about 200 to 300 yards offshore from the beach access at Ocean Shore Avenue and Great Neck Road - he found medics, firefighters and police in a handful of boats. They were working to keep the pre-teen's head out of the water while trying to free her leg from the recreational craft.
Yates pulled on his gear and dove into the murky water. When he finally got a good look at the girl's leg, propeller embedded deep inside, he knew immediately it wasn't going to come free, he said later.
Police took the girls' friends and family from the recreational boat to a nearby marina, while Yates, three other police divers and two civilian mechanics devised a way to remove the propeller from the boat's hull.
They gave the girl a diving mask so she could breath while rescue efforts continued. Mack stayed by her side in the water.
The minutes crept by, punctuated by swells that rocked the boat every 30 to 40 seconds, endangering the divers and evoking a fresh cry of pain from the girl, her rescuers recalled. They knew they had to move fast but didn't want to risk more damage to her leg.
Finally, after about 90 minutes, the mechanics and divers freed the propeller and pulled the girl from the water. They rushed her, propeller still embedded, to a waiting ambulance, which took her to a nearby field to be picked up by Sentara's Nightingale air ambulance.
The girl was in critical condition at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital on Thursday evening but is expected to survive, said Division Chief Bruce Nedelka, a spokesman for the Department of Emergency Medical Services. Officials did not release her name.
It was unclear Thursday how the girl got stuck, but the Police Department's Marine Patrol Unit is investigating, said Battalion Chief Tim Riley, a Fire Department spokesman. An update is expected today.
Yates said it was one of the most difficult rescues he's ever undertaken.
"I've freed lines, ropes, buoys from propellers, but not a person," he said. "We were just afraid for her because we could hear her pain."
Yates, who's also a dive instructor for the Police Department, said he'll probably add training on freeing swimmers from boat propellers after Thursday's rescue.
It wasn't exactly how he expected to spend his birthday, but he didn't care, he said. "I'm glad I could help somebody."