By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The story seems too far-fetched to be true: A little girl floating on a raft drifts miles out to sea, spends a seven-hour ordeal fighting for her survival and then is rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter frantically searching to find her before nightfall.
Happy endings like this one are usually the stuff of novels or the movies. But this story really happened – in Sea Isle City, 48 years ago.
Over the years, the dramatic disappearance and rescue of 7-year-old Shari Lynn Davis on Aug. 1, 1972, has largely faded from memory. However, old newspaper articles chronicled how rescuers in Sea Isle mounted a wide search on land and in the water for a girl who had been swept five miles out into the ocean on her tiny raft.
“Mother Credits Prayers for Rescue,” blared the headline for an Associated Press story that was published in the Asbury Park Press, 16 days after Shari was found.
“Seven-year-old Shari Lynn Davis will remember her first trip to the Jersey Shore for a long time,” the story began.
Bill Gallagher, who was the captain of Sea Isle’s beach patrol in 1972, recalled in a recent interview that rescuers simply had no clue what had happened to the girl after her parents reported her missing.
“We didn’t know where she was. We didn’t know she had drifted out to sea. We didn’t know, ocean or land,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher organized the lifeguards for a search of the island, knocking on doors as they went house to house.
Shari and her family, who lived in the small western Pennsylvania town of Portage, were in Sea Isle in August 1972 for a summer seashore getaway.
The girl was floating in the surf just off the Second Street beach when she disappeared around 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 1. Her parents, Ronald and Shirley Davis, along with their four sons, combed the beaches and looked elsewhere for Shari for about 30 minutes before notifying authorities.
“The boys were great. They looked in sand dunes, motels, swimming pools, parked cars – everywhere,” Shirley Booth later told the newspapers.
Shari, meanwhile, was at the mercy of the currents. Her raft drifted farther and farther out into the ocean as the day wore on. She was so far out that she lost sight of the beaches. She was knocked off the raft twice by waves and tried to swim back in.
“I thought I was close enough to make it, but it was still too far away. So I just got back on the raft and hoped somebody would come and get me. I tried to paddle, too,” Shari was quoted as saying in the papers.
For seven hours, she floated offshore. She had to endure hunger, thirst and feeling cold, but didn’t panic. For her salvation, she said she prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. Her mother prayed to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things.
“She prayed to God and He answered her,” Shirley Booth said of her daughter.
After the initial search by police and the beach patrol failed to find Shari, the U.S. Coast Guard was called in to assist with a helicopter. Miraculously, as daylight was starting to wane, the helicopter crew found her at 6:45 p.m. drifting five miles off Ocean City, north of Sea Isle.
When the Coast Guard helicopter’s rescue swimmer jumped in to save her, Shari reportedly asked him, “Can I take my raft with me?”
Later, Shari told reporters, “I liked the helicopter ride a lot better than the raft.”
Despite spending seven harrowing hours fully exposed to the elements, Shari suffered only some bad sunburn and some bites from greenhead flies, according to the newspapers.
The next day, Shari was back on Sea Isle’s beaches, floating on her raft again, as if nothing had happened.
“It’s a feel-good story. Back in those days we weren’t as methodical as they are now in getting names. We were just happy to make a rescue,” Gallagher said, noting that over the years he had forgotten some of the details of the incident.
Although her rescue had a happy ending, Shari Lynn Davis’ life ended sadly. Only 53 years old, she died of cancer on Sept. 26, 2018, in her hometown of Portage, Pa.
Matthew R. Decort, a Portage funeral director who handled Shari’s arrangements, confirmed she was the same person who was rescued on the raft. Attempts to reach her family for comment through the funeral home were unsuccessful.
Shari’s father told reporters in 1972 that his daughter was a good athlete and swimmer. Her athletic ability was reflected in her obituary.
A 1983 graduate of Portage Area High School, she was a member of the Lady Mustangs basketball program. She also attended and played basketball for Carlowe College in Pittsburgh. She formerly lived in the Pittsburgh and Tampa, Fla., area before moving back to Portage in 2016.
“Shari’s warm smile and outgoing personality will always be treasured by her numerous aunts, uncles and cousins as well as her many friends,” her obituary said.
Her obituary, though, did not mention her movie-like ordeal and rescue at sea on Aug. 1, 1972.