WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Antonio Burns still vividly remembers the day at Kure Beach that took the life of beloved Ashley High School teacher and active church member, Jessica Embry.
Both Burns and Embry jumped in the water to save two girls caught in a rip current. Embry tragically paid the ultimate price and passed away at the scene. Burns is paying a different price after a four-day stay at the hospital: medical expenses.
Even two weeks later, the day plays out again clearly for Burns in his first trip back to Kure Beach — to the same beach access — since the incident.
“I distinctly remember those two little girls walking right past us — happy — they was smiling, cheesing, happy,” Burns said. “You couldn’t have told them something like this was going to happen.”
The day started out as a peaceful one, he said. Burns, who is from Winston-Salem, and his friend had originally planned to go to Virginia Beach, but a quick search of the closest beach led them to Kure and Carolina Beach.
The peaceful day took a dark turn when those two little girls he saw in the parking lot got swept up in a rip current.
“My friend was like, ‘Oh my god! Somebody over there is drowning,’” Burns said. At first, he did not believe his friend and thought the kids were playing in the water. “It’s like playful — they were splashing but I just start hearing the screams and the screams begin to sound — not like playful screams, you know; it sounded like horror, like they were in trouble.”
Burns doesn’t even remember setting down the camera he was holding. He just rushed to the water.
It’s at that point that he sees Embry.
“Ms. Embry looked dead at me. We didn’t know each other from a can of paint,” Burns recalled. “She was just like, ‘you get that girl, I got this girl.’”
Burns said even though very few words were exchanged, Embry gave him the confidence he needed to rescue the girls in the water.
“Even going into the water it hit me one last time, like — Toni you don’t have no swimming equipment, Toni you is not experienced, you don’t even know what you going into, but it was just like this lady summoned me. This lady just gave me orders; this lady believed in me, so I put out the rest of the faith in myself and put it all on the line like she did,” Burns said. “It’s like she gave me superpowers. I went in there feeling like Aquaman and as it got close, I turned right back into a human — reality hit.”
The reality — that the current had pulled them 50 yards off shore and the waves were coming down hard on all of them.
“I never had a near death experience before in my life, but I definitely felt death kissed me on the lips,” said Burns. “I did hear a familiar voice and it sounded like my father and all I remember before I blacked out under the water it was just, like — ‘It’s okay son, you’re not ready. It’s okay son, I love you. I love you son.’ I seen a little speck of white light but I don’t know if that was a glimpse of the sun coming through the water — I don’t know.”
That’s when things started to go dark — Burns was dying while saving a life. He remembers glancing over at Embry during the struggle.
“The waves was covering Ms. Embry. You can’t see nothing but the wrists on Ms. Embry and you see the grip getting tighter on the girl. And you can really barely see her face, you can really just see this part of the girl’s. You can tell her head above water and Ms. Embry just holding her.”
Burns’ near lifeless body was pulled from the water and first responders pumped his chest. He finally regained consciousness and started looking for those who were in the water with him.
“That’s the second person I asked for when I came back to. I asked for the girls, and I asked where Ms. Embry was and I looked over and I just seen them pumping her chest. But in my head I just knew if I was okay, I knew she was going to be okay.”
Burns would later find out that Embry did not make it.
He eventually spent 4 days in the hospital — some of them on a ventilator — leaving him with mounds of medical bills, but it’s not about the debt for him.
“A life is priceless, especially two little girls,” he said.
Understandably, it was an emotional day for Burns, but as a father, brother, and uncle, he said he would jump in the water again if it meant saving the life of those girls.
And while he has managed to physically recover, mentally there is a long road of recovery ahead.
“Most of the times I feel like I’m still under the water, I still hear screams, I hear a lot of screams.”
But his biggest regret is not having the chance to meet his fellow soldier: Jessica Embry.
“I still don’t even look at myself like a hero — just because I wasn’t able to save my fellow soldier that was in the field with me. I think I’d felt more like a hero if it came out that way.”
Burns says his biggest takeaway from the whole experience is that people need to educate themselves on the dangers of rip currents.
He has been studying up ever since that incident. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that the best thing you can do is stay calm.