KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Four men have formed an unexpected bond over an experience that almost took one of their lives.
On Feb. 24, Sean Frost, Joe Stamper, Jeff Frazier and Jimmy Leeper all went fishing at Cherokee Lake. They arrived as strangers. They left with a bond that will never be broken and a story only fate could write.
There’s irony in the fact that Jimmy Leeper’s friendship story begins on Cherokee Lake, because it’s the same place his life almost ended.
Before the Feb 24, Sean Frost, Jeff Frazier and Jimmy Leeper didn’t know each other. Frost lives in Claiborne County, Frazier lives in Watauga, Tennessee, and Leeper lives in Knox County.
Joe Stamper and Sean Frost were already friends and were fishing together that day.
Jeff Frazier says he actually stopped and talked to Leeper before he lost control of his boat. He says they passed each other on their boats and exchanged friendly fisherman hellos.
“We talked two or three minutes and I thought, well that’s a nice fellow,” Leeper said.
He didn’t know that fellow would save his life just minutes later. Jimmy says he’s still not completely sure what happened, but somehow, the tiller handle on his boat got out of his hands and started going in a circle. He lost his balance and fell off of the boat.
The boat continued to spin in circles while Jimmy tried to stay above the surface. Jeff Frazier heard this commotion as it happened.
“I was getting my rods ready and I heard a loud thud noise and I heard the boat motor rev up and I turned around and looked his boat was just spinning around,” Frazier said.
Jimmy’s boat was spinning out of control and he was no longer on it. Jeff knew he had to act fast.
“When I first ran up to him I thought it was him but it was his hat or something floating in the water and then I couldn’t see and I was standing on the front of my boat and his boat was just circling and he was kind of going under and coming back up and going under and coming back up,” Frazier said.
Leeper says he struggled to stay above water. The currents created from his spinning boat kept pulling him under. He was also wearing a fleece lined coat that added weight. But he says he knew he had to keep trying.
“I thought, I’m gonna drown if something doesn’t happen,” Leeper said. “What was going through my head the whole time was probably I’ve got to make it back to the top. And I realized that if I didn’t have help, I was done.”
Frazier says he ran over to Jimmy and jumped into the water as Jimmy slowly sunk deeper into the lake.
“I reached down farther in the water and was reaching, now it’s all the way up to my ear I guess, I don’t know where it was at. And I kept reaching and all of a sudden, I felt something hit the palm of my hand right there and all it was was that much of his thumb and I grabbed his thumb which is two fingers and I didn’t even know if that was him and I pulled up and it was him,” Frazier said.
Sean Frost was nearby fishing with his friend, Joe Stamper. The two watched from across the way as everything unfolded.
“I immediately started to try to get on the phone with 911. And it was terrifying really once you got over there because we didn’t know if he had a stroke heart attack what had happened,” Frost said.
After 3 minutes of flirting with death, Jeff finally pulled Jimmy to safety.
Jimmy says at this point he had lost consciousness. When he woke up, he was surrounded by the three men.
“First thing I remember is one of them had their hand on my shoulder or on my head saying a prayer and I realized then, the good Lord is looking after me,” Leeper said.
With a second chance at life, and new friendships to explore, Jimmy’s story is far from over.
“I’m grateful for them, I thank God for them, and I think God maybe gave me a testimony to tell somebody about a second chance,” Leeper said.
Today, he’s doing well. Leeper says he’s been fishing four times since the incident, and says he’s approaching every day as a fresh start. He hasn’t seen the men who saved his life in person since it happened, but they have talked over the phone and he hopes to meet up with them soon.