You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Man rescues boys from riptide then dies on beach

USA TODAY USA TODAY 18/06/2016 Alex N. Gecan and Andrew Ford

New Jersey man James Clarke rescued his son and two friends from a riptide and had a heart attack moments later © USA Today New Jersey man James Clarke rescued his son and two friends from a riptide and had a heart attack moments later LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP, N.J. — A man on a beach weekend with his family rescued his son and two friends from a riptide last week but dropped dead of a heart attack moments later.

James Clarke of Watchung, N.J. was reading a book as he sat on the sand on Long Beach Island with his wife the evening of June 5 when he saw a friend of his teenage son scramble out of the surf.

Peter Clarke, 15, and two other boys were caught in a riptide. One had sucked saltwater into his lungs.

The 55-year-old Clarke, whose friends called him Jimmy, dropped his phone and his copy of Factory Man and dashed into the waves to rescue them. Within moments, he and the boys had made it back to shore.

But Jimmy Clarke faltered, stopped and then collapsed, dead of an apparent heart attack, Jane Clarke said. Jane and Peter Clarke said their husband and dad died a hero that day, but that cold comfort did nothing to fill the void left from his absence

Jimmy Clarke began wooing Jane when she was managing a Bennigan's restaurant near Union, N.J., a quarter century ago.

Jane Clarke said that Jimmy Clarke, who would come by for a drink from time to time, would pop the lock on her car door, leaving behind flowers and balloons until she finally relented and went on a date with him.

They ate dinner at the River Cafe under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Like everything else he did, the date was "larger than life," Jane Clarke recalled.

Joan McGowan, a friend of the Clarkes who knew them even before their 24-year marriage, said Jimmy Clarke had made up his mind to marry the woman who would become Jane Clarke.

"He was never going to break up with you," she said to Jane Clarke the day of her husband's wake. "It was always Jane, it was always Jane."

Jimmy Clarke ran a furniture retail company, Bedrooms Unlimited, in Union. His business partner, Michael Barr, remembered him as "one of the kindest, most generous people I've ever met."

And the company earned him the nickname "Furniture" among some of his friends.

David Silverman of Bridgewater, N.J., also called him "Captain Courageous." He said Jimmy Clarke took him out boating through a foggy night the first time they met.

The Clarkes moved to their Watchung home 14 years ago, according to Jimmy Clarke's obituary. But he called their beach home on Long Beach Island his "little slice of heaven," Jane Clarke said.

"We would be on the deck and have nice dinners and watch the moon and it was a really, really good time," she said.

At around 5 p.m. ET June 5, Peter's friend ran up to Jimmy and Jane Clarke, who were sitting outside their beachfront house.

"I looked over at him and I thought how much I loved him and how perfect it was, and then one of the boys came up and said the boys were in trouble," she said.

Peter said that he and the other boys were stuck about 100 yards off the beach, struggling to make progress against the tide while supporting another boy. Jimmy Clarke made it out to them, and they got the boy on a boogie board.

"He was like, 'All right guys, it's pretty rough out here,' " Peter said, remembering. "Then we started focusing on getting back."

But Jimmy Clarke stumbled as they reached the breakers.

"He was in fear," Peter said. "I'd never seen that."

He managed to lock eyes with his wife, too.

"The boys were out, and then all of a sudden, my husband, like, sat down, and I swear, he looked at me one last time," Jane Clarke said. "I saw his blue eyes. And he knew what was going on."

Peter said he tried to perform cardio-pulmonary resuscitation on his father. Jane Clarke said a nurse happened to be nearby and took over.

Then the paramedics arrived.  But soon after, Peter was recovering in his room in the beachfront home with his friends when he heard sobbing outside.

He said he knew then that his father was gone. The boy who had breathed in the saltwater recovered.

The Ocean County Medical Examiner's office said that Clarke's autopsy results would take several weeks to come back but that his death appeared to the result of "natural" causes.

Friends and relatives drifted in and out of the Clarkes' home Thursday. The Clarkes already had put the house on the market before Jimmy died, but Jane Clarke said she has dropped the price to get away from the home she had shared with Jimmy.

Jimmy Clarke's favorite red leather chair still sat in a corner of their basement lounge where he would school Peter and his elder sister Laura on billiards, taunting them by offering to play left handed and still winning. A worn-down circle remains where he would rest his crown of thick red hair, which had gone bright white later in life.

Upstairs in the garage, his inky-blue Porsche Carrerra convertible, which he used to race up in the Poconos, sat between the truck he had driven to Long Beach Island for the last time and a go-kart awaiting repairs.

Jane Clarke kept his unfinished biography, a business card for Bedrooms Unlimited wedged between pages where he had left off. She wavered whether to leave a cigar in his casket, or a whole box.

Both said that if Jimmy Clarke were still here, they would tell him what a great thing he had done and how much they missed him.

His wife recalled their last day together.

"I literally looked over at him and thought in my head, 'This is the best that we've ever had it,'" she said. "And that's my last memory of him."

Follow Alex N. Gecan and Andrew Ford on Twitter: @GeeksterTweets and @AndrewFordNews



image beaconimage beaconimage beacon