San Diego

Hometown Heroes: 7 Stories That Inspired Us in 2018

Here's a look at seven stories -- and the heroic people behind them -- that inspired us in 2018

2018 has seen much destruction but out of some of the most tragic stories have come the best tales of heroism. Here's a look at seven stories -- and the people behind them -- that inspired us in 2018: 

1. Calif. Firefighters Defend Homes, Save Lives From Raging Wildfires

It has been easy this year to focus on the blazes that became raging wildfires, but what is often overlooked are the dozens of smaller fires that never grew past a half-acre because of the quick response from California firefighters.

Crews with the state's Cal Fire agency have fought more than 6,265 fires across the state this year alone, not to mention the hundreds of wildfires attacked by other fire departments.

But the majority of those fires have not grown to the massive size of one of California's deadliest and most destructive wildfires in recorded state history, the 153,000-acre Camp Fire. 

Cal Fire San Diego spokesperson Issac Sanchez said, while it is a testament to the coordination from firefighters, crews and residents need to remain vigilant because the threat of damaging wildfires remains as high as ever. 

Sanchez said firefighters have had a more aggressive approach this year and the resources between agencies to work together -- and defend people's lives and homes -- has become more efficient since one of the most devastating fires in San Diego County history, the 2003 Cedar Fire

2. Coronado Man Protects Patrons During Thousand Oaks Bar Shooting

Justin Meek was killed in the shooting at a Thousand Oaks bar and now a community has come together in his name in Coronado. NBC 7's Liberty Zabala has more.

When a gunman stormed the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, 23-year-old Justin Meek, a recent Cal Lutheran University graduate and a Coronado High School alumnus, stepped in to save patrons amid the chaos. 

It was College Night at the country-themed bar, a Wednesday night tradition that Meek helped promote, and several of the bar-goers were under 18 years old. 

Meek was struck and killed, but those who knew him remember that his passion for protecting people stretched into his childhood, sparked by the Sept. 11 terror attacks, according to an obituary at a recent memorial service on Coronado Island. 

At the time of the shooting, Meek was interning with a company that provided security to bars and clubs in the greater Thousand Oaks area, just the latest in a series of roles to help protect and defend others, according to loved ones. 

As the son of a Navy service member, Meek spent his childhood moving from home to home until his family settled in Coronado. That’s where Meek worked as a junior lifeguard, looking out for the safety of swimmers. 

"When he was guarding, when he was in his tower, when he was patrolling, he was a serious young man who took his responsibilities seriously," said Coronado Lifeguard Capt. Sean Carey. 

Meek had long-term plans to be a U.S. Marshal but first wanted to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard, his obituary said.

The young man was described by his family as a "genuine, kind, loving, caring, compassionate, hardworking, talented man and a friend to everyone he met."

"Justin was about taking care of others -- that was his heart," Pastor David McElrath, of Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church, added.

3. Kayakers Help Save Teen Bitten by Great White Shark

Encinitas lifeguards are talking about the "heroes" who helped save an teen from a near-fatal shark attack. NBC 7's Danny Freeman has more.

The quick actions of three kayakers off Beacon's Beach in Encinitas may have saved the life of 13-year-old Keane Webre-Hayes after an 11-foot great white shark bit into his shoulder and back, according to the teenager's surgeon. 

As Keane Webre-Hayes was recovering in the days after the shark attack, Dr. Tim Fairbanks credited the three men -- an off-duty police officer, an off-duty lifeguard and their friend -- for rushing Keane Webre-Hayes to shore. 

He also praised good Samaritans on the beach who helped apply pressure to his wounds before paramedics could arrive. 

But, most importantly, according to the surgeon, he credits Keane Webre-Hayes for his forethought to ask for help from others. 

"He made a decision immediately to take action and save himself," Dr. Fairbanks said. 

It was the beginning of lobster season and the waters off the Encinitas shoreline were packed with swimmers and water sport enthusiasts when the teen was bitten. 

His mother, Ellie Hayes, heard her son's screams from the parking lot above the bluffs and was thankful that "he had his wits about him." 

"I just want to say thank you to all three [kayakers]. Without what they did we would be having a whole different scenario," she said at a press conference in October. 

Keane Webre-Hayes and the three men who are credited with helping to save his life were recognized by the city of Del Mar in November. 

At the meeting Keane Webre-Hayes took the time to thank his local heroes personally: 

"Thank you, Matthew, Andrew, and Chad for just being there and talking me through it," he said before jokingly adding, "Also, I want to thank Andrew for being in the water when there was an 11-foot great white shark swimming around." 

4. Pilot Makes Emergency Landing on Interstate 8 

A 25-year-old flight instructor safely landed a small airplane on a busy Southern California freeway, touching down between cars for what appeared to be a seamless landing. 

Ryan Muno, a former SDSU baseball player, was training a 36-year-old student aboard a Piper aircraft when their plane's engine failed on the way to Gillespie Field. The flight instructor took control of the flight.

Video shared with NBC 7 from a couple who was behind the plane, showed the small aircraft merging gently into traffic, avoiding several cars as it made its descent.

"That ----- just landed on the freeway," Zach Decker said in the video. "And he’s got it under control."

Muno did not give media interviews after the harrowing landing but San Diego State University confirmed the pilot was one of their own.

A retired Pacific Southwest Airlines captain, Joe Graham, called Muno the 'Sully' of San Diego today" after seeing footage of the stirring maneuvering.

5. Big Wave Surfer Rescues Encinitas Family in Kauai, Hawaii 

An Encinitas family was one of the many graced by the selflessness of legendary surfer Laird Hamilton. NBC 7's Dave Summers has the story.

Famous big wave surfer Laird Hamilton helped rescue an Encinitas family caught in a torrential storm that led to flooding and mudslides while they were on vacation in Kauai, Hawaii. 

The Gwilliams recounted being stuck in the storm, which dumped 27 inches of rain on the island in just 24 hours and washed out roads and a bridge near their rented house, leaving only one way out. 

"I just kept praying all night that angels would surround the house," Erin Gwilliam said. 

Then Hamilton, the pioneering leader in tow-in surfing, where a person uses a personal watercraft to catch giant waves, came to the rescue, the family recounted to NBC 7. 

"He just kind of boated right up and was like, 'OK, come through the mud and the slime and come throw your bags in and let's go,'" Erin said. 

Hamilton comforted the Gwilliam kids during the ferry ride. The whole experience reaffirmed to the Gwilliams that the surfer is, "a total legend in my book," one family member said. 

6. Navy Corpsman Likely Saved Life of Teen Hit by Car

A Navy Corpsman who teaches CPR class to fellow sailors was in the right place at the right time Monday as she witnessed a crash that threatened the life of a Granite Hills High School football player. She spoke about her heroic moment to NBC 7's Dave Summers.

When 16-year-old Granite Hills football player Maddox Sanders was struck by a car a few miles from the El Cajon school, U.S. Navy Corpsman Emily Bustos was one of the first people to reach the teen as he lay in the street. 

For minutes until an ambulance arrived, Bustos gave Maddox Sanders CPR, and it may be what saved his life, according to his family. 

"The family is so very thankful. Without her, my brother would not be where he is now," the high schooler's brother Brandon Sanders said. 

Witnesses told NBC 7 Maddox Sander's breathing began to steady after just a few repetitions from Bustos. 

"I could tell he was going into cardiac arrest. So I checked his pulse and didn't feel anything and that's when I started administering CPR,” Bustos said. 

Bustos, who teaches CPR but said she has never had to use it in an emergency, is one of three corpsmen serving 300 sailors on USS Milius. 

She was on leave and less than 24 hours from departing for her wedding in Hawaii when she witnessed the car crash and rushed to aid Maddox Sanders. 

7. Sign Seeks Hero Who Saved SDPD Detective After Collapse

A police detective from Poway had a heart attack while running, and a woman stopped to save his life. NBC 7's Liberty Zabala has more on their reunion.

Diane Craig spotted what turned out to be San Diego police detective Phil Worthington lying in a gutter on Memorial Day and quickly realized "something's not right," she told NBC 7. 

Worthington was out running when he went into cardiac arrest. Craig, a nurse, is credited with saving his life after she jumped out of her car and performed CPR until an ambulance could arrive. 

When the police detective heard of the hero who saved him, he posted a sign on Community Road in Poway to try and get their attention. 

"For the Person who did CPR on me on Memorial Day: Please contact Poway Fire Chief Post," the sign read. 

The two finally were reunited at a surprise ceremony months after the rescue, at an event hosted by the North San Diego Business Chamber called "Honor our Region's Heroes." 

"It's all surreal to me because when it happened, I was in the hospital so I awakened in the hospital finding out that I went into cardiac arrest and this wonderful angel of mine saved my life," Worthington told NBC 7.

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