A U.S. Coast Guard officer quickly went from husband to hero when he dashed into the ocean still wearing part of his wedding suit to save a drowning teenager.
Zac and Cindy Edwards had just exchanged vows and were posing for photographs on August 2 at Orange Beach, Alabama, when a panicked woman pointed to 18-year-old Jamel Robinson, who was struggling to stay afloat far from the shore.
“We all turned and looked, and you could see he was pretty far out, you could see the look on his face, he was worried,” Zac, 37, tells PEOPLE. “Cindy knew what I was thinking, and she said, ‘Go get him.’ “
Zac — a hulking marine science technician in the Coast Guard — quickly took off his shirt (and nearly removed his pants until Cindy pointed out he didn’t have time), and dove into the ocean. That’s where he came across two other teenagers in the water who were also planning their own rescue.
“I didn’t want it to turn into a multiple person rescue,” Zac, from Mobile, Alabama, says. “So I grabbed the boogie board from one of them and told him to go back… when I finally reached [Robinson], he was saying, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!’ “
Taking Robinson by the wrist, Zac placed the teenager atop of the boogie board and began swimming back to shore. But they had only made it halfway when the currents proved too strong, and Zac found himself making little progress forward no matter how hard he swam.
Orange Beach Fire Department and Orange Beach Surf Rescue soon arrived on scene and retrieved the two from the ocean using a jetski.
“My wife was running out into the water as I was getting out, and I got a nosebleed from bouncing on the sled,” Zac says while laughing. “But I went right back into wedding mode, and I told her to get away because I didn’t want to get blood on the dress!”
It wasn’t until Zac was in bed resting next to his wife that night that the gravity of his daring act of heroism set in. There were so many things that could have gone wrong, he says, for everyone involved.
If the couple had been married a day later as their pastor initially recommended, Zac wouldn’t have been there to help. And if Zac hadn’t grabbed the boogie board from one of the teenagers before retrieving Robinson, he may not have had the strength to stay afloat long enough while awaiting emergency services.
“If I would have had to let him go, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself,” Zac says. “But I wasn’t going to let him drown on my wedding day in front of my wife and kids while I’m able to do something.”
What stayed in his mind through it all was his six children — three from previous relationships and three from Cindy’s — and making it back to them.
“I could have lost what was most important to me,” Zac says. As he laid there looking at his wife as she slept on their first night as husband and wife, he cried.
Robinson has recovered from the ordeal and is back home, and even thanked Zac for his heroism in a video message sent through Good Morning America.
The week since the wedding ceremony and rescue have been filled with love, Zac says. He feels fortunate that everything worked out on their special — and surprising — day.
“We’re very much in love, we’re very, very happy. We’re very blessed and she’s an amazing wife,” he says. “God had a plan, and everything fell into place.”