Volunteers with the IndoJax Surf School quickly began CPR on a man they thought was swimming in knee-deep water in front of the Surf Club on Wrightsville Beach around 5:45 p.m., Thursday, June 19.
IndoJax owner Jack Viorel said his team of surf school instructors was out in the water past the breakers and noticed the man after Viorel’s son caught a wave to shore.
“He surfed a wave all the way in and when I swam in to get him that is when I saw something in the water. I didn’t know what it was so I got my son up on the board thinking it could be a shark,” Viorel said. “It was really close to shore … and then it surfaced and I could see it was a person but it still looked like he was swimming so for maybe another five seconds we watched him.”
After realizing the man showed no signs of life, Viorel called another instructor over to help drag the man out of the water and they began performing CPR.
Viorel said it appeared the man, later identified as Steve Ruppenthal, 49, had been floating in the water for several minutes before Viorel got to him because his skin had a bluish hue.
The incident happened after Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue lifeguards had left their stands for the day and Viorel asked someone to call 911. Within minutes, Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue arrived on scene and took over treatment of the man.
With no visible injuries and minimal surf, ocean rescue director Dave Baker said he suspected the man had a cardiac incident that caused him to lie face down in the ocean for so long. The man was transported off the beach with a pulse and Baker said he had a higher oxygen count when they arrived at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
However, on Friday, June 20, Ruppenthal died from complications caused by his prolonged submersion underwater.
Ruppenthal, a resident of Arlington, Va., and Charlotte native, was once in a small indie rock band from Chapel Hill named The Popes from the 1980s to 1991.
Ruppenthal was with his family in Wrightsville Beach but family members declined to comment on the incident.
Another man was found unconscious on the beach strand south of Johnnie Mercer’s Pier around 8:30 a.m., Friday, June 20. Wrightsville Beach Police and WBOR responded to find an 18-year-old white male passed out face down in the sand. After he regained consciousness, WBPD suspected underage drinking and the man had passed out on the beach strand from the night before.