At first, Brandon Neilson thought a couple of kids were horsing around at the pool at Santa Margarita Catholic High.
Then came the scream for help.
Brandon, 16, dashed onto the deck of the school's aquatic center. Floating on the water was a backpack and a cap. Kneeling over the pool was a maintenance worker who couldn't swim, futilely reaching into the water and imploring his sunken co-worker to grab his hand.
It all happened so fast in Brandon's mind, but what he saw was unmistakable.
"I looked down and saw a guy at the bottom of the pool, and I thought he was dead," Brandon said Tuesday, the day after the Dec. 12 incident. "I thought he was gone."
The best estimate is that he had been underwater for about 90 seconds. It would have been longer if not for Brandon.
The Mission Viejo High junior—who was on campus Monday night to pick up his sister, Ali, from volleyball practice—threw off his jacket, kicked off his shoes and dove into 7 feet of water.
A competitive swimmer and water polo player at school, the Rancho Santa Margarita resident pulled the limp body to the surface and pushed it onto the deck while others pulled.
The victim, Jose Luis Mendoza, had apparently been putting a pool cover on the pool when he slipped and fell; neither he nor his colleague could swim.
After the rescue, a third maintenance worker, Sam Medina, administered chest compressions before Brandon—an Eagle Scout who has his lifesaving and first aid merit badges—began assisting with that too.
Mendoza, 38, began foaming at the nose and mouth, the water coming up from his lungs. Orange County Fire Authority emergency personnel arrived shortly thereafter.
On Tuesday, Brandon received a phone call from the OCFA as well as Lu Dominguez, Santa Margarita's vice president of administration. Brandon said he was thanked by the school and informed Mendoza was going to be OK.
That was great news for Brandon, who lives in the Rancho Cielo community with his parents, Alan and Jamie Neilson. Sister Ali, 13, is an eighth-grader at Rancho Santa Margarita Intermediate who was practicing at the high school with her club volleyball team.
Brandon said there was an odd occurrence leading up to the 8:30 p.m. heroics.
Although familiar with the school, when he parked in the lot and started to go to the gym to get his sister, Brandon said he couldn't remember where to go.
"If I hadn't drawn a blank, I could have passed the pool sooner and I would have missed the whole thing," he said. "I think it was divine intervention. There's no other explanation. I feel like I was put there for a reason. If it wasn't for me, it could have affected that family tragically."
The whole experience left him changed too. He said he felt different after the result of his actions and what it meant to those involved finally hit him.
"I was totally thinking about that afterward; if I had been a minute later or earlier, he could be dead," Brandon said. "I know the school pretty well, I practice water polo there all the time, but when I got there, I had to remember where the gym was to pick up my sister. It was weird, because I was there at the right place at the time time."
And he was the right guy.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include the full name of the victim and add the name of Sam Medina as the man who initiated chest compressions.