ROGERSVILLE — Nathaniel Wells lost a good friend earlier this month, despite a valiant effort to save the life of a man he loved like a “papaw.”
On May 2, Nathaniel, 15, of Gate City, was fishing with 71-year-old Edward McMillan on Cherokee Lake near the Quarryville Boat Ramp west of Rogersville when the boat overturned, sending them both into the water.
Nathaniel swam approximately 60 yards to shore to get help, but was denied the use of a phone to call for help by a fisherman on shore.
Without hesitation, Nathaniel then swam back to the boat, retrieved McMillan, and brought his friend back to shore, having swum a total of 180 yards in cold water.
Sadly, his friend didn’t survive.
On Thursday of last week, McMillan’s family, as well as Nathaniel’s family, joined dozens of Hawkins County first responders at the Hawkins County Rescue Squad station in Rogersville to present Nathaniel a Heroism Award and celebrate his courageous attempt to save his friend’s life.
The event, which also included a barbecue dinner courtesy of the HCRS Crewettes, came as a big surprise to the Gate City High School student, who wasn’t informed of the reason for his trip to Rogersville.
HCRS member Weston Morgan, who is also the Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads’ state chaplain, explained that the emblem on the award is the same emblem used by every rescue squad in the Volunteer State.
Morgan explained that the emblem features a green cross representing when Jesus laid down his life that we might live and a dove’s wing representing God’s hand on our shoulder in everything we do.
“Young man, it is an honor and a privilege to present you an award bearing that emblem today because you have exemplified the meaning of a Good Samaritan, and I am honored to call you my friend,” Morgan said.
HCRS Lt. Corey Young read aloud the plaque, which states, “In recognition of outstanding bravery and heroism that you exhibited on May 2, 2020 on Cherokee Lake, the characteristics that you showed and decisions that you made on that day can only be described as those of a hero.”
The bottom of the plaque reads, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Nathaniel also received $200 worth of gift cards from Pro Bass Shop to replace the fishing equipment he lost in the accident.
“Don’t ever give up fishing,” Morgan told him.
Nathaniel told the Times News Thursday the appreciation he has been shown “feels great.”
“It feels like family here,” Nathaniel added. “It feels like my home away from home, and now I consider these people a part of my family.”
He said he doesn’t know why the fisherman on shore wouldn’t let him use the phone.
“First I asked his daughter and then looked at the dad, and I asked him, and he didn’t. So I done my part and tried my best,” Nathaniel said.
The Times News asked Nathaniel if the experience changed him.
“Most definitely. I know my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is on my side.”
Does he think he has a future as a rescuer or firefighter?
“I don’t know. It depends on what God has for me.”
Morgan met Nathaniel at the lake shortly after the accident and they spent several hours together.
“He is so easy to like,” Morgan said. “A fine young man.”
Morgan later met Nathaniel’s family and McMillan’s family at the hospital.
“It’s always heartbreaking when you leave a scene and leave victims’ families not knowing if they have support or what lies ahead for them,” Morgan said. “But I remember distinctly telling (Rescue Squad Honor Guard Bobby Darnell and David Franklin) that day that I’m not worried about this young man because he has support. I got to meet his family, both families, and saw the love and compassion in them, and you could feel it as soon as they said hello to me.”
Morgan added, “I’m not worried about this young man. He’s going to have some rough days to come, but this is one kid who has support, and most of all these families know the Lord, and that’s the ultimate support.”