It was supposed to be a relaxing walk on the beach over a holiday weekend. Two young teens from Phoenix, AZ were in San Diego, CA on Friday, July 3, 2020 exploring Sunset Cliffs when they came upon a group of people seemingly enjoying the view. It was then that 16-year old Zachary Haugen and 15-year old Jake Watson looked into the water and saw two people struggling amidst the waves and rocks. Haugen, a certified lifeguard, realized the people in the water were in distress and, without hesitation, he jumped off a 15-foot cliff to offer his assistance. The 11-year old girl and young adult woman were trying to stay above the water after they had been swept in by a wave. Haugen, as he tried to calm down the girl so that he could get her to safety, looked up to his friend. Watson said, “You could see fear in the little girls’ face” so he shouted down and asked Haugen if needed help to which he nodded affirmatively. Watson jumped in to help Haugen saying, “I put her on my back and pressed up, and just kind of rolled her off my shoulder onto the landing,” Then, Haugen and Watson assisted the other young woman to safety, all before the lifeguards arrived.

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Upon learning of the heroism of these two young men, His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos reached out to schedule a Zoom meeting so he could offer his personal congratulations to them. During their 45-minute conversation, which included their mothers Alexia (Hotis) Haugen and Paulina (Pestrivas) Watson, Metropolitan Gerasimos shared, “What you did on those cliffs was amazing. The hand of God, through your actions, saved lives. You did what your parents and your family have taught you to do, to help someone in need. And this time it was a matter of life and death.”

Haugen and Watson shared with Metropolitan Gerasimos that once the young girl and woman were in the care of the lifeguards, Haugen found himself still on the rugged rocks in the water. Because the lifeguards needed to focus their attention on the girls, they were unable to assist Haugen back to safety. Once again, Haugen looked to his friend, so Watson laid down on the edge of the cliff and reached his arm down and helped his friend back onto the cliff. Metropolitan Gerasimos remarked, “It says a lot about your friendship and how much you care for one another.”

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Haugen will be starting his junior year at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, AZ where he is active on the swim team. Following high school he plans to be a wild land firefighter and said that “helping others brings him joy.” When asked about the experience at Sunset Cliffs and if he was fearful, Haugen simply stated, “I had faith that I was going to be ok and that God was going to take care of me.”

Watson is entering his junior year at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, AZ. When he saw his friend needed assistance, Watson made the sign of the cross before jumping into the treacherous water, and then crossed himself again after the ordeal had ended. He described the experience as “unexpected, stressful and surreal.”

Haugen and Watson attend Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Phoenix, AZ with their families. They are active in Sunday School, Greek Dance and participate in the Metropolis Folk Dance and Choral Festival.

Bystanders referred to the water in that area like a “washing machine” and that the cove where the girls were rescued is full of jagged rocks and strong waves. Though there were numerous bystanders in the area observing the girls in the water, no one reacted until Haugen and Watson put themselves in harms’ way to save them.

The local news stations in San Diego covered the heroic efforts of Haugen and Watson, who are visibly wearing their baptismal crosses in the television images, and can be seen in a tight and grateful embrace from the mother of the young girl whom they saved.

When reflecting on the experience Haugen stated, “There wasn’t too much thinking; it was just I have to go and help these people, because I knew they needed my help and I’m never going to stand by when someone needs my help.”