For the love of Maria
By Zoe Satherly
John Heaton thought he was a goner but was brought back from the brink of death by the thought of his wife of 24 years, Maria.
The Uralba man and Lismore TAFE administrator was trapped, holding his breath in an underwater cave, between Ballina and Lennox Head.
Disoriented in the eerie dark and calm of the cavern, with his strength ebbing and his lungs at bursting point, panic set in.
He swallowed some water as he groped to find a way out, back to the maelstrom that had sucked him under when he jumped off the infamous rock known as Iron Peg, just off Boulder Beach, in January.
It was an action this surfer of 35 years' experience had done hundreds of times before from his favourite surfing spot.
But this time things went horribly wrong and now he was trapped, fighting for his life.
"I thought 'oh no, it's not gonna happen this way is it?' and a drifting sensation took over. I could feel myself letting go," the 48-year-old said.
"I thought I was going to die in that cave.
"Then out of the blue Maria, my wife's name, flashed across my mind. I could see her face in front of me.
"Something just clicked in my body. 'I'm not going to leave Maria like this. I've just got to get out of here' is what raced through my mind.
"The next thing I remember is being churned up and sucked under in the huge backwash and cross waves coming off the rocks. I was so weak I could barely tread water and I was having trouble breathing.
"It crossed my mind that I might still drown."
Luckily for John, his good surfing friend, Michael Gardiner, of Angels Beach, had watched the whole drama unfold from a higher vantage point on the rocks where he was standing, fully clothed, showing a mate the normal jump-off point.
Just seconds previously he had told his friend: "Just watch this guy. He really knows what he is doing."
"We saw the rogue wave that reared up from nowhere, picking John up like a matchstick and slamming him under. His surfboard broke in two," said Michael.
"My mate, David Amos, of Ballina, ran off immediately to call an ambulance.
"I watched, feeling absolutely helpless, as John was dragged under the boiling surf time and time again, before disappearing for what seemed like an eternity.
"It's a place where many fishermen and surfers have lost their lives."
Michael gestured madly to two surfers in the water, Pat Dwyer and James Forster, both of Ballina.
James was able to reach John and somehow get him on his board and paddled to a rocky cove.
Michael, Pat, James and another surfer, Dan Jenkins, helped haul John's semi-conscious body onto land and re-established his breathing.
An ambulance was on the scene in minutes and took John to Ballina Hospital.
While in hospital Maria told John that when she had woken up that morning and he had already left for a surf, she felt unusually sad.
She thought about her husband and the fact that he wouldn't be there that morning to say goodbye to their two children, Sarah, 17 and Andrew, 13, on their first day back at school after the summer break.
Maria got out the mobile phone, thought lovingly of John, and typed in a message 'I miss you'.
Thinking he'd find it silly, she deleted it.
The time was 7.30am ? exactly the time John was struggling for his life, trapped under water in that terrible cave.