When John Campbell was 21, he watched his best friend drown right in front of him.
Years later, the San Diego man found himself in a position to save someone from a terrifying boating accident and immediately took action.
Campbell, along with his son, visited the U.S. Coast Guard station in Long Beach Friday where he was honored for saving the lives of four people who were stranded when a boat capsized in San Diego Bay more than a year ago.
Ten people were pitched into the water when the 26-foot sailboat they were riding in overturned on March 27, 2011.
Campbell was one of the first people on the scene when his boat approached the victims stranded between Harbor Island and Shelter Island.
He said there was panic and chaos with several people in the water right away. He and his friends immediately noticed a body, visible under the water.
The rescue had its challenges. The victims had just watched their own relatives drown and there was a language barrier according to Campbell.
“It was kind of autopilot for me. I was just picking off people and trying to get them to a boat as quick as I can,” he said.
As his adrenaline was pumping, Campbell kept two thoughts running through his mind - “swim” and “one person at a time.”
He did just that, moving the survivors to his own boat and to another inflatable nearby and keeping other survivors calm while they waited for Harbor police.
"His actions were truly heroic," said Capt. Jim Jenkins, the commander of the U.S. Coast Guard's Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach. "Obviously he's a good swimmer and was able to help those people through personally getting involved, getting in the water and saving lives."
Jenkins represented Campbell with a Certificate of Valor.
“I understand water,” he said. “How beautiful it is but it’s pretty ferocious too.”
Four adults suffered bumps and bruises officials said. Another woman and the two children were not seriously injured.
Harbor Police Department investigators said the accident was caused by the boat carrying too many people and the poor condition of its equipment – among other factors.