A toddler very nearly drowned Sunday evening in the waters off of Massengale Park Beach on St. Simons Island, but Gregory Grant and Aleisha Rankin took action to help ensure that the little girl made it safely back to shore.
That is the story unfolding three days after the tragedy in which Grant, 39, and Rankin, 34, died while saving a life in the swift rip currents that cut through the surf on that crowded Mother’s Day afternoon at the beach, according to witnesses and law enforcement reports. The Brunswick man and the Jesup woman did not know each other, nor did either of them know the child whom they helped save.
But heart-broken family members of both said Tuesday that the sacrifice displayed by both drowning victims typified the way each lived their lives. Rankin was a mother to three girls and a boy, ages 8 to 19.
“She always put self aside when it came to anybody’s child, not just her own,” said Von Walker, Rankin’s first cousin. “That’s just the mother in her. She did what any mother would do — on Mother’s Day.”
Grant was father to an 18-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter.
“We’re just so proud of him,” said Leah Woods, Grant’s aunt. “He took it upon himself to do something for the greater good at a time when it was really needed. Now we have another angel above to look over our family.”
Walker, Rankin and other family members regularly made Sunday trips from Jesup to the oceanfront park on St. Simons Island, Walker said. Walker was at the park but did not see what happened. However, witnesses told her that Rankin already was in the water when the tragedy began to unfold at around 6 p.m. The child began to get swept away in the surf after going after a ball, Walker said.
Rankin went to the child’s rescue, but then she herself began struggling with the swift currents after reaching the girl, Walker said.
“She was already in the water and two or three unattended kids were out there too,” Walker said. “One of the kids was going after a ball and began to drown.”
Grant was standing on the beach with his girlfriend and her mother when he noticed Rankin and the child struggling in the water, said Mike Thomas, Grant’s uncle. Thomas arrived at the beach with other family members after learning of Grant’s disappearance. Witnesses told him what happened.
“He threw his wallet back to his girlfriend’s mother and told them he would be right back,” Thomas said.
Grant then went into the water. Rankin handed the child to Grant before being swept farther away by the rip currents, Walker said. Grant brought the toddler back to shore, handing her over to a woman standing on the beach, said Thomas. Then Grant went back into the swift surf.
“He had a hold of the lady and both of them went under,” Thomas said.
Other beachgoers managed to bring Rankin to shore, but she was unresponsive when two off-duty nurses began performing CPR there on the beach. Glynn County EMS workers took her by ambulance to Southeast Georgia Health System’s Brunswick hospital, where she was later pronounced dead, according to Glynn County Police.
Grant never resurfaced after witnesses saw him going under, said Sgt. Mark Carson of the state Department of Natural Resources. DNR officials are still investigating, but Carson confirmed that Grant brought a child safely to shore and helped others as well. Several people were either caught up in Sunday’s rip currents or assisted others in getting to shore, Carson said.
An intensive search of the waters for Grant continued until dark Sunday, involving county police and firefighters, the county’s EMA Search and Recovery Team, U.S. Coast Guard and state DNR boats. Helicopters and drones searched the waters from overhead.
The search resumed early the next morning, and Grant’s body was discovered offshore from Massengale Park at around 7:30 a.m.
Grant, who worked on Sea Island, was a graduate of Brunswick High where he played football, basketball and ran track, his uncle said. Grant will be missed by family members for his upbeat attitude and outgoing personality. Many knew him as “Scoop,” the nickname derived later in life from “Scoot,” which his mom Cynthia Burton gave him in childhood.
“One thing about Scoot, he was always laughing and smiling,” said his aunt, Woods. “Regardless of what was happening, he always had a smile on his face. And he could always put a smile on everyone’s face around him.”
Rankin raised her four children with her significant other and worked for McDaniel Vending in Jesup, Walker said. Motherhood came naturally to Rankin and her life centered around her children and her extended family, she said.
“She was very loving, very motherly, friendly,” Walker said. “She was a hard worker, and lived for her kids and for her family. She would always step up and bring the family together.”
Family and friends of Rankin plan to gather at 5 p.m. Sunday at Massengale Park to release helium balloons and hold a memorial, Walker said.