When Keane Webre-Hayes stepped up to throw the first pitch at the Tuesday, July 2 Padres game — about nine months after he nearly lost his arm in a shark attack — he had one goal: make it over the plate.
But for his mother, who can’t forget her 14-year-old son’s harrowing shrieks the day of the attack, it was so much more than a game-worthy pitch.
“It symbolized overcoming. It symbolized survival,” Ellie Hayes said. “It symbolized all the work that we have been doing day in and day out. Most people don’t see that part, but for me… I was so very proud.”
When his mother thinks how far her son has come, his recovery seems miraculous.
On Sept. 28, Keane and a friend were among a couple dozen divers off the coast of Beacon’s Beach in Encinitas for the first day of lobster diving season. The two were about 200 yards from the beach when they got to a spot they were sure would have lobsters. Keane went under the water and spotted one of the crustaceans, but couldn’t quite get it.
He remembers surfacing for air and taking in the view — the sun was rising and another kayak had pulled in to the area. He took a deep breath and went under to try again. He was on his way back up to take a breath when he felt something tackle him.
At first, Keane thought his friend was playing a prank on him. But when he surfaced, blood was pooling. His wetsuit was ripped, and his shoulder was seriously injured.
Ellie Hayes said doctors told them that the force of the shark attack was so intense that if Keane had not had braces, he would have lost his teeth on his left side.
The teen’s will to live took over. On instinct, he started swimming to the kayak he had spotted, screaming that he’d been bitten by a shark. He climbed aboard and told the stranger inside that he needed to get to shore.
“I wasn’t really thinking at all,” Keane said. “My survival mode just kicked in. I didn’t think. I just did.”
The man in the kayak, Chad Hammel, and two of his friends, one an off-duty lifeguard and the other an off-duty police officer, helped get Keane to shore. The 11-foot, great white shark trailed behind them.
His mother was on a cliff above the beach when she started hearing screams. She was on the phone with her husband who joked that it was probably Keane getting eaten by a shark.
“He said that. I mean, what are the chances?” she said.
She got to the beach and learned what had happened to her son. She says people tell her that she kept her composure, but inside she had completely fallen apart, she said.
A helicopter was called to rush Keane to a hospital.
“You could see Keane’s lung breathing through his ribs,” his mother said. “No one thought he was going to make it.”
But, after five hours of surgery and more than 1,000 stitches, Keane stabilized. When the trauma surgeon told Ellie her son was going to live, she sat the trauma surgeon down and insisted he tell her the truth.
“I said, ‘You can be honest with me. You can tell me what’s really wrong.’ And he said, ‘Ellie, I promise you. We fixed him,’” she said.
Six weeks later, Keane was exercising again. Chad Hammel, Andrew Hubble and Matt Ephron — the three men who helped save Keane — had become family friends. Keane had also started to read up on sharks, and develop a deeper respect for an animal with which he feels he now has a special connection.
By Christmas, Keane had only one request for his parents — he wanted to go back into the water.
“The ocean is so peaceful. When you’re diving, there’s no car horns, no one is telling you to do your homework — it’s my happy place,” he said. “My love for the ocean is much greater than my fear of sharks.”
So, on Dec. 26, Keane went with Billy Harris, the first lifeguard who responded to the shark attack, to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas for a swim.
“It was surreal,” Ellie Hayes said. “I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to get back into the water and I was very nervous and then happy when he got out.”
Hayes said the family never would have made it without the outpouring of support from relatives, friends and community. Thousands of dollars have been donated through a GoFundMe to help the family keep up with Keane’s medical bills. A paddle-out is slated for Sept. 7 at Moonlight Beach to offset those expenses.
Major League Baseball sent the family to last year’s World Series, where Keane got to meet some of his favorite baseball players, like Clayton Kershaw, Dave Roberts and Trevor Hoffman. Meric Spearfishing hooked Keane up with new gear.
Equinox Fitness donated personal training packages and Nakoa Fitness and Physical Therapy provided dozens of free sessions.
“We would not be where we are today, with Keane throwing out a pitch at a Padres game, without our community,” Hayes said. “The emotional, monetary and mental support is how we made it this far.”
Keane is grateful as well, but perhaps most grateful for his time in the sea. A couple of weeks ago, he went on his first deep sea dive since the attack. He snagged a yellowtail with his spear.
-- Lyndsay Winkley is a reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune