KURE BEACH –– At times Antonio Burns feels he’s still under the water.
It’s dark and muffled with the sound of sloshing waves overhead. It doesn’t help when he awakes in a sweat, drenched.
“I feel like I just jumped out of the pool, or I may not even want to sleep at all — just awful flashbacks,” Burns said. “It’s probably gonna take a long time. Gonna take a long time to mentally recover.”
Nearing a month since Apr. 18, the 27-year-old is working on restrengthening himself mentally since the trauma he endured that Sunday. A photographer from Winston-Salem, Burns headed to the beach for a relaxing day on the sand, snapping shots and capturing reel. Then he saw two girls being towed away in a rip current and caught the eye of a woman across the beach, calling on him to act.
“You get this girl, I got this girl,” Burns remembers Jessica Embry, the orchestra director at Eugene Ashley High School, directing.
By the time first responders arrived at the scene to help everyone ashore, Embry had already saved one of three children by holding them above water and passing the child off to a bystander. Burns was roughly 70 yards from shore and Embry was about 30, estimated Kure Beach Fire Chief Ed Kennedy.
Two unknown heroes jumped in to pass boogie boards and stay with the two remaining children and Embry, Kennedy said.
“They left the beach so we were unable to get their name or number or anything,” the chief said.
As the anonymous woman stuck by Embry’s side in the water, Kennedy could tell something was “not right” about Embry and swam to her first. Once pulled to shore, they began CPR, but she didn’t make it.
Two days later, Burns woke up in New Hanover Regional Medical Center. He’d been in a coma and on a ventilator. Doctors assigned him a liquid diet on the third day, then ordered him normal food on the fourth and two lung X-rays to ensure all the water was out before he was discharged.
Before leaving the hospital, Burns got his bill.
“At first I thought they said $2,400. I was like, ‘OK,’” Burns said.
Then he realized it was $24,000. His health insurance had expired.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Burns remembered thinking.
Members of the community are now helping him cover the cost of his medical visit.
“Mr. Burns could have paid with his life and now he is stuck with a huge hospital bill,” one supporter, Rebecca Trammel, said. “He deserves a hero’s reward, not medical debt.”
Kevin Millard originally launched a fundraiser in honor of Embry. Through social media, he collected just over $5,000 for United Sound, a program the teacher developed connecting special-needs students to orchestra.
Soon enough, Milliard learned through a friend about the hospitalization of Burns.
“I thought, ‘Wow, well, he’s gonna have some bills,’” Milliard said.
He set up a page originally to raise $5,000, and days later Burns’ mother shared a photo of the bill: $19,000 over the goal amount. A fellow self-employed photographer, Millard considered it probable Burns lacked insurance.
“I think when people see someone on the news, and they hear a story like that, they think, ‘Oh, I’m sure he’ll be taken care of,’ and it makes you feel good just to believe that,” Millard said. “When you really get down to it, you’re like, ‘No.’ He’s gonna have to jump through hoops to even get his bills paid for. He’s gonna have to jump through hoops to even get back on his feet to where he can get back to work.”
So far, donors on three separate pages have contributed close to $18,000 toward Burns’ medical expenses. Weeks after Milliard launched the initial Facebook fundraiser, the momentum is dwindling. The fundraising bar is unbudging in recent days, stagnant around $15,000.
Even if reached, the goal won’t begin to cover the cost of the therapy Burns needs to address his newly developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Burns recently took his daughter to the park, and found himself confusing the sounds of children’s play for terror.
“I just keep hearing screams,” Burns said. “I lose breath, sometimes. I have to catch my breath.”
More than anything, Burns carries the weight of guilt. He was looking forward to introducing himself to Embry and celebrating the victory of returning the girls safe.. Now, he blames himself for not performing as a better-than-average swimmer, not educating himself about rip currents. He watches hours of videos on rip currents each day.
“That was just the brotherly, fatherly thing to do. It was the right thing to do,” Burns said. “Had me and Ms. Embry made it out, I’d probably feel more like a hero.”
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