One month from a bodysurfing accident that left him temporarily paralyzed and floating face-down in the Wrightsville Beach surf, WRAL anchor Jeff Hogan can look at everything about that Saturday in July and the days that followed and say yes, it all feels a little bit like a miracle.
“The doctors afterward said I should not have been able to hold my breath because of the impact and the concussion and the damage I did,” Hogan said in an interview with The News & Observer. “It should have knocked the wind out of me, and that brings up a whole separate thing, because the only reason my girls were able to see me floating is because I held my breath and I was able to float. I would have sunk. And then maybe you wash up, or maybe you get swept out, and then it’s all over.”
Hogan, set to return to work full-time this week, was enjoying a day at the beach on July 28, swimming and bodysurfing with daughters Skyler, 15, and Kate, 14. His wife of 21 years, Jeanne, sat on the beach nearby.
Hogan and his daughters all caught the same wave, but Hogan’s trajectory sent him face first into a sandbar.
“I hit it square on, square on my head, and I saw stars,” he said. “I’m not sure if I flipped over and the light from the horizon of the sun came around, but I remember seeing that white light-type thing, and I remember things getting real quiet and hearing the bubbles of the waves rushing by and thinking for a split second, because I was totally paralyzed, that this is how it happens, this is how it ends. And then in the same instance, this is not how it’s gonna end today. Somehow I’m gonna break out of this.”
Hogan said his limbs were floating and he felt like he was in cement, like he was in a cage he couldn’t break out of. All he could do was hold that one breath — the miraculous breath he wasn’t supposed to have been able to take in the first place — and wait.
That’s when he heard his daughters screaming.
“That’s how I knew I had a chance. That they saw me,” he said. “Their screams got closer and closer and they flipped me over and lifted me up, and I was able to catch that breath.”
He felt himself go underwater again and thought for days afterward that his girls had dropped him, and he remembers thinking, “You need to hold me up out of the water, don’t let me drown in your arms.” But he later learned it had been another wave crashing over them. They never let him go. And soon, people rushed from the shore to help pull him to safety.
It all happened so quickly, he said, but he remembers nearly every detail: getting dragged to shore by strangers, getting attention from first responders, being strapped to a backboard, not being able to speak to his daughters to reassure them, only being able to wink at them.
One of his daughters left to alert their mom, who came running. “And then they were all there for a moment, for what I determined was a moment,” he said. There was a crowd around him at this point, so his wife couldn’t get close. “I could hear them and my daughter that stayed with me right there. She was like, ‘He can hear you because he’s winking at me.’”
Hogan’s daughters are another big part of this miracle. That they weren’t the ones who met that sandbar at the end of the wave they all shared is something that hits Hogan every time he thinks about the accident.
“I’m so happy that it was me instead of them,” he said. “I would not trade with them for a second.”
Then there’s the fact that they saw him and acted quickly.
“The fact that they were there to rescue me and save my life, essentially, makes them my heroes,” he said. “They have not accepted the hero tag yet, but I keep putting it on them. They say, ‘We just did what anybody would do,’ which is what heroes say.”
But even heroes can be traumatized by the events they witness, and it was no different for Hogan’s daughters — at least for a couple of days, he said.
“When they closed their eyes, they saw me. Because when they flipped me over, I mean, think about it — they’re seeing me face-down in the water, they get to me and flip me over and I’m bleeding from my nose and bleeding from my forehead and I can’t move and I can’t speak.”
Hogan said his daughters told him later that when they first saw him, they thought he was “messing around,” but then in the next instant, they thought he was dead.
“Just those images going through their heads, at 14 and 15, thinking those things so quickly. I hate that happened to them.”
But Hogan thinks his quick recovery has had a lot to do with how well his daughters have bounced back from the experience.
“I think, terribly, if this went the other way and they were holding their dad in his last breaths or something like that, how that would affect them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “So I think the outcome has helped them progress a little bit, knowing that we’re gonna do everything we can to make everything all right and back to normal. I think they’re OK now.”
‘It was my turn to be tested’
Hogan has been an athlete his whole life. Thirteen years of football through the college level at the University of Rhode Island, plus years of triathlons, races, motorcycles, jet-skis, snowmobiles, you name it.
After his accident, a doctor told Hogan, who is 50, that his neck was more like 65, so he knows he can’t keep punishing his body in the same ways now.
“I need to do things differently, there’s no question,” Hogan said. “Recently I was supposed to jump out of a plane with (WRAL meteorologist) Elizabeth Gardner and the Army Golden Knights, and I just couldn’t because of what happened. But down the road, I don’t think I’ll ever do that again — jump out of a plane again.
“Some of those things I need to think about. Getting back in the water again? Yes, I’ll get back in the water again, but I’ll be very careful about choosing to ride waves again. … You don’t want to stop living but I will be smart about it in the future.”
Hogan, a Pennsylvania native, came to WRAL from WBNS in Columbus, Ohio, in January. Even though red flags were flying that day at Wrightsville Beach, he said his accident had nothing to do with water conditions.
The town of Wrightsville Beach describes a Red Flag signal warning as a “high hazard” indicator.
“What happened was not a red flag situation, it was a freak accident in a weird spot that had all the dynamics that came together that day,” he said. “It was my turn to be tested. It was just weird, and I really don’t regret what I did. It would have happened on a no flag day or a red flag day. It was not part of the equation, in my opinion.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate that the flags are there for a reason.
“I’ll go back on the air and I’ll say the same things that I’ve said: ‘Be careful down there and watch out for the riptides,’” he said.
But he also believes that sometimes, “You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, and sometimes she has a mind of her own.”
It’s also worth noting that a recent report by The News & Observer says that a growing number of scientists believe unnaturally altered beaches — beaches such as Wrightsville which are routinely renourished with sand — could pose an elevated risk of injury to the tourists by way of more rip currents and sandbars.
A ‘miraculous’ recovery
A 1995 NIH study of bodysurfing accidents indicated that injuries most commonly are the result of “forced hyperextension of the head and neck due to the surfers having been caught up in turbulent wave action and driven into the sandy sea bottom.”
That’s exactly how Hogan’s accident occurred. He went from being fully paralyzed for hours after his accident to regaining use of his legs and then his arms, and then slowly working to relearn basic motor skills, like buttoning his shirt and tying his shoes.
He returned to work last week co-anchoring the 4:30-7 a.m. news with Renee Chou, and is set to start full-time, resuming the noon newscast duties as well, on Wednesday.
“It’s exciting to be back,” he said. “It’s just part of what makes me whole. I like to work hard and play hard and I need those equations in my life. … I’m not where I want to be, and that’s all the motivation I need to get going and keep going in that direction.”
WRAL vice president and general manager Joel Davis told The News & Observer last week that Hogan would increase his responsibilities as he got his doctor’s approval to add more to his workload.
Hogan told us that his stamina is increasing, and he’s gaining strength every day, so he thinks he’s ready for full days.
“I’m not trying to do anything too quickly that the doctor hasn’t approved,” he said. “But I’m gonna do everything that the doctor lets me do, for sure.”
His lingering symptoms include numbness in his right shoulder, burning sensations in both arms from his elbows to his fingertips and numbness and stiffness in both hands. The rapid pace of his early progress has slowed, he said. From here, it will take more time, and he knows the way he feels right now could be as good as it gets.
“Nobody will tell me that I’ll make a full recovery, because that’s a medical ‘who knows’ right now,” he said. “That will be another miraculous day. Another miracle when that day happens, when I get there.”
Hogan is looking at surgery later in the year that will clear out some space around his spinal cord. The surgery won’t make lingering symptoms disappear, but it should protect him in the future from relatively minor incidences, like an airbag going off in a car. Another injury to his neck, doctors have told him, could cause irreparable damage. He’ll take another short break from anchoring duties for the surgery.
But for now, Hogan is grateful for all the help and support he has received — from his family, first responders, doctors, nurses, therapists, colleagues and viewers — and he’s very aware of how truly fortunate he is. He is thankful for his miracle.
“It’s been termed a miraculous recovery by some of the doctors and some of the therapists,” he said. “But when I look at some of the events, it is miraculous that I’m here.”