TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
For Tech. Sgt. Jack Tucker, 325th Fighter Wing occupational safety manager, risk management has been a priority in both his personal and professional life due to an experience he had as a teenager growing up in central Alabama.
In the summer of 1987, when Tucker was 15 years old, he nearly drowned in the Cahaba River.
“The river was suffering the full impact of a drought that lasted for weeks,” recalled Tucker. “The radio announcer was constantly complaining about the lack of rain.”
Tucker says he remembers that day like it was yesterday.
“During the hot summers in Alabama, I always managed to stay busy,” he said. “Next to the thrill of my high-risk activities and ultimate sports, another of my favorite past-times was fishing.”
Tucker and his childhood friend, Toby, grabbed their fishing poles and headed to their usual watering hole, only to find that the water had receded too much for fishing.
“When we arrived at the oasis, we saw that the water level was extremely low,” he said. “This was out of the ordinary [despite the drought.]”
The boys began to head home when Tucker had an idea to rope-jump from rock to rock at the bottom of the oasis. He said he had watched it on T.V. and thought it looked like the type of adrenaline-seeking activity he was partial to.
“The fast ride down the rocks had quenched my thirst for excitement,” Tucker said. “I was…having the time of my life.”
It was Tucker’s second turn to rope-jump when the afternoon took a dramatic turn.
“No sooner did I hit the rocks, when a gushing wave of cold, muddy water covered me completely,” he recalled. “I gradually lost control in the powerful currents.
“The current had me in its clutches,” he continued. “The next thing I knew I was fighting the current just to stay above water. All of a sudden it dawned on me that this was a flash flood tossing me through the waves and rocks.”
Tucker said his survival instinct kicked in and he began to reach for anything he could hold onto. He grabbed onto a rock and rested before making a dash to the shore.
“At that exact moment, I felt a sharp pain on my face,” he said. “[I went] under water again. When I surfaced, I felt lightheaded and thought [I had a concussion.]”
Following the injury to his face, Tucker saw a tree was about to hit him. He said he felt a slicing pain, and in that moment, he made a decision.
“I was not going to drown in that creek,” he said.
He managed to strategically float down the remainder of the creek until he floated ashore, beaten and bloodied.
“I was thankful to be alive,” he said. “I stared death in the face and walked away. All I wanted to do was go home.”
Tucker recalls hearing the radio announcer comment after the flood, reporting that there had been a massive amount of flooding within the surrounding counties.
“I truly hope I never again experience an afternoon like that,” Tucker said.
Fast forward to 2019, 32 years later, Tucker wishes he had known about risk management and resiliency when he was a teenager.
“Now, I think about planning and assessing my environment, practicing situational awareness,” he said. “What could go wrong? What can I mitigate? I would never have thought then like I do now.”
Tucker also said that he feels he was at a disadvantage at the time because he didn’t have enough life experience.
“You can forget that you are only human,” he said. “Being in a situation could require so much endurance, and Mother Nature is not always kind.
“Whenever my Airmen go out to do high risk activities I always brief them on what they’re doing, if they are drinking and if so, to not disregard changes in breathing, energy levels and be aware of how much easier it is to become disoriented.”
Tucker said high risk recreational activities are not even the biggest concern for Airmen or their families and friends.
“Tourism is big here in Panama City and traffic can become hazardous, especially when you factor in inattentive drivers, passengers not wearing seat belts, etc.”
According to Tucker, traveling on the road is actually the biggest risk because inexperienced drivers can largely underestimate the power of recreational vehicles.
Even though there are always going to be risks, Tucker still encourages people to get out there.
“Continued activities will help you learn what the hazards could be and only help you get better,” said Tucker.
Some examples include flying civil aircraft, hang gliding, skydiving, auto racing and bull riding, just to name a few.
According to the 325th FW safety High Risk Activities Program policy, those wishing to participate in a high risk activity must receive a briefing and undergo an interview, usually with the individual’s unit commander, to assess the likelihood that the individual can enjoy the activity without an unacceptable level of risk.
“You have to realize that the risk is personal,” he said. “I was given a second chance, which I am incredibly grateful for. I understand now that I am not invincible and life can be very real.”