PHILADELPHIA — Even for the most experienced swimmer, it's a nightmare scenario. Stranded in the middle of the ocean with no food and the blistering sun burning down on your face. Jelly fish and sting rays circling beneath your feet. That's what Heather Barnes had to deal with on Friday ... for 16 hours.
The 20-year-old Deptford, N.J., native was visiting the islands of Cayos Cochinos on the northern shores of Honduras with other students from the New College of Florida. Barnes, an aspiring marine biologist, had been there for three weeks, snorkeling and studying. Friday marked her last day on the island.
"I couldn't sleep," she wrote on her Facebook page. "So I went to collect coral samples."
"I tried to stay in the same spot, thinking people would search for me soon," she said. "But after two hours I still didn't see anyone. I realized if I was going to make it, I had to swim back myself."
Exhausted, sunburned and suffering from dehydration and jellyfish stings, Barnes began the agonizing journey back to land.
Meanwhile trip organizers and college officials were quickly realizing that she was nowhere to be found. Barnes' mother, Jennifer Dukelow, remembers the phone call she received eight hours after her daughter went missing.
"I just couldn't wrap my head around it," she said. "All I could think of was what we had to do."
Dukelow quickly notified her friends from work as well as her church. The community sprang into action, doing all they could to help save her daughter.
"We had so many people saying, 'I know this person, I know that person,'" Dukelow said. "We got a hold of Congressman (Rob) Andrews (D-N.J.), who contacted the embassy. The College of Florida head reached out to Sen. (Marco) Rubio (R-Fla.) and Congressman (Vern) Buchanan (R-Fla.), keeping the pressure on the embassy to keep pressure on the Honduran government to do everything they could."
The resort where Barnes was staying sent out fishermen, kayaks and hikers to help find her. Dukelow says her daughter not only received physical help, but spiritual aid as well.
"We had prayer chains going out from all the bodies of the church," she said.
Finally, after 16 hours in the ocean, Barnes saw land.
"I made it to Lion's Head on our island and collapsed on the shore," Barnes said. "Two locals carried me and gave me water. They kayaked me back to the resort where people poured from every building and hugged and kissed me."
Dukelow says she was overwhelmed with emotion when she found out her daughter was safe.
"I heard a beautiful voice at 10 o'clock that night," Dukelow said. "I was screaming. I dropped to my knees. I just said, 'Thank you God, thank you God!' She was like, 'Mom, I'm OK, I'm alive. I kept swimming!'"
Barnes is back in the U.S. and being evaluated by doctors. Dukelow says her daughter suffered bad sunburn but otherwise is doing OK.
"The only explanation I have is that God was with her," Dukelow said. "You don't hear stories of people swimming for 16 hours very often with happy endings. We're just very thankful."
Barnes will be back in New Jersey to see her family on Friday.
"I'm safe and well loved," Barnes said. "I'm ready to take a break from the beach for awhile."
First published July 21 2013, 4:26 PM