“Thank you for saving my life” – Mexico Beach homeowner’s boat helps neighbors survive

SAVING GRACE: The boat Keith Vargo’s neighbor claims saved his family’s life. (Photo courtesy of Keith Vargo)

Story by JENNA BAILEY

On Wednesday, October 10, category 4 Hurricane Michael made landfall along the Florida Panhandle, destroying an significant number of beach homes in its wake. One such beach home belonging to Mexico Beach homeowner and Atlanta, Ga. resident Keith Vargo. In a Facebook post with around 16,000 reactions, Vargo tells the story of how a last minute decision to leave his boat behind assisted in the survival of neighbors who had not evacuated.

Vargo and his wife, Beth, took their family to the beach home for fall break and left the morning of Monday, October 8, as the storm had been upgraded to a category 1 and was gaining strength quickly. Vargo tried to board as many windows and doors of the home as possible, secure outdoor items, and get out quickly to return to their home in Atlanta.

In the rush, Vargo was uncertain of whether to leave his offshore boat behind or take it with him. “As many of you know, I’m meticulous with the boat so 99 times out of 100, I would have brought the boat back,” stated Vargo in the original Facebook post. “But, last minute, I decided it would be OK where it was.

I was also planning to have an addition built under the home beginning in November, so I had pulled the boat as far forward (towards the driveway but still under the home) as possible to allow for the work to be done. I had never stored the boat in that spot before since we built the house several years ago. For the entire week following the hurricane, I was kicking myself for not trailering the boat home.”

Vargo stated in the post that he had come to terms with the fact that the house was destroyed and that there was nothing he could have done to save it. As for the boat, Vargo was upset with himself for making the decision to leave the boat behind.

On Friday, October 19, Vargo returned to his Mexico Beach property to meet with an insurance claims adjuster, retrieve the few items that were worth saving, and to check on his boat. As Vargo was digging through the rubble, a man approached him and extended his hand to shake Vargo’s and said, “Thank you for saving my life.”

As the neighbor continued his story, he informed Vargo that he, his wife, and his elderly parents were his neighbors from across the street. The family had decided to ride out the hurricane in the parents’ one-story beach home. The man’s parents are in their 70’s and his father is a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair.

As the storm surge continued, the entire front of the home was ripped away. Two family members were floating on a vinyl mattress while the other two were on an insulated hot tub cover inside the home, pinned against the back wall of the living room. As the storm surge water pushed to 8 ft. inside the home, the family only had 12 inches of airspace left to breath before they would all drown. Realizing there was no escape, and frightened by the sounds and sheer force of the hurricane, the family had given up hope.

“In those last minutes as they were saying their goodbyes, they saw something large coming at the front of their home. It was my boat. It had broken free from the trailer that had wedged under the pilings, and floated across the street straight towards their home, and just before it impacted their house, it turned sideways and slammed into the home, wedging itself into the front wall.

The boat became the new front wall of the home and acted to divert the majority of the incredible storm surge around the middle of the home to the sides of the home. Once that happened, the storm surge remained steady at 8 ft. deep in the home rather than continuing to increase as it should have, giving them those precious few inches of air to breath, and remained that way for the next five hours as they rode out the storm, literally inches from death,” stated Vargo, recounting what his neighbor had told him.

As the storm surge eventually receded, the boat unwedged itself from the home and gently floated 20 feet to the side of their home to eventually lay on its side in their front yard.

Vargo said, “The decision I had been upset about and second guessing all week was immediately put into perspective. I had taken many family and friends offshore fishing on that boat so many times with countless numbers of amazing catches and great memories – memories we’ll all cherish for the rest of our lives. Yet for all that, the boat’s ultimate purpose wasn’t fully realized until last Wednesday [Oct.10].

My neighbor’s words will be burned into my mind forever, ‘your boat literally saved the lives of my entire family, I can’t thank you enough’. Honestly, I had nothing to do with saving those lives. God had a reason for giving me that last minute pause on Monday morning that caused me to leave the boat, and for parking it in a spot under the home, where I had never parked it before, that would allow it to be clear from the pilings to travel across the street and save the lives of those four people. What I thought was ‘my mistake’ was really me just not understanding that there was a bigger purpose for the boat, and it needed to be left at the house to serve that purpose.”