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Teen Saves Drowning Man at SMCHS

Brandon Neilson dove into the high school's pool after happening on the scene; Jose Luis Mendoza was at the bottom under 7 feet of water.

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.

ann kershaw December 14, 2011 at 02:22 PM
God Bless you Brandon. I believe there's a reason for everything and it's wonderful that this has a happy ending. Employees who work around water, should be given basic training on lifesaving.
Richard Oakley December 14, 2011 at 02:24 PM
EXCELLENT use of your skills and wits, Brandon!! Your parents should be VERY proud!!
Jennifer Shorr December 14, 2011 at 05:06 PM
Woo hoo! Thank you Brandon for working to be such an awesome young man that you were ready and able when you were needed. Way to go!
Sue Ramirez December 14, 2011 at 05:19 PM
Awesome job Brandon!!! Because of you and the others the Luis family is going to have the BEST Christmas of their lives. This is something you will never forget. Thanks for being in the right place at the right time and doing what you needed to do. This is the BEST story ever at this time of year. See you on deck during Swim and Waterpolo season.
Pat B December 14, 2011 at 05:23 PM
Brandon, thank you for your fine example. I am certain Luis and his family view you as a hero. And you are!
Jim Neilson December 14, 2011 at 05:40 PM
Brandon is an awesome young man. Proud to be your uncle. You have always been a great example to your younger cousins. We all proud of you and thankful that the Luis family still has their father. What a great Christmas present.
dave pyle December 14, 2011 at 06:33 PM
Great Job Brandon! You are a pure example of courage! You set a great example for all of us! Dave Pyle
Brad McGirr December 14, 2011 at 06:53 PM
Brandon, you should be very proud of your actions. However, as the years pass, I would imagine that this event will hold even more significance in your life. In your own difficult times, you will draw comfort in knowing that because of you, another man lives, and that another family will benefit from the presence of their husband and father. One heck of a Christmas present if you ask me. Great job!
Mike Proctor December 14, 2011 at 07:57 PM
Way to go kid.
Juli Stowers December 14, 2011 at 08:16 PM
Brandon, You were amazing in kindergarten, and you're even more amazing now! You should be proud -- I am! Good job! Have a wonderful Christmas!
Marci Sparks December 14, 2011 at 08:56 PM
You are such an example to us all. What a blessing that you are an Eagle Scout because of your affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church. You had those life-saving boy scout skills and had the courage to be a Christian in the time of crisis. What a wonderful story for you and Jose. Good job at being at the right place at the right time.
Jennifer Proffit December 14, 2011 at 08:59 PM
Wow Brandon! What an amazing young man you have become! I would definitely want to have a guy like you around to help me if ever I was in need. Thanks for being so faithful and listening to the promptings of the Spirit. What a humbling and inspiring story. I'm sure Jose and his family's gratitude is unmeasurable. You and many others will remember this act of service and bravery for the rest of your life.
Lisa Neilson December 15, 2011 at 03:17 AM
I'm so proud of you Brandon!!! You have truely given Luis and his family the best Christmas gift ever! You rock!!!
Dan Stapleton December 15, 2011 at 03:47 AM
Wow Brandon this should be one of our inspirational videos in Seminary like the boy that got hit by lightning. As I have said so many times in class, I know who you guys are; your awesome.
Becca December 15, 2011 at 05:22 AM
Brandon, keep listening to the still small voice,your an amazing example of strength and courage to others!
layne December 15, 2011 at 04:34 PM
Preparation meets opportunity.....a life saver. Way to go BSA Eagle!
Brenda Mosal December 15, 2011 at 05:39 PM
Brandon, you are a true role model for our children! Thank you!
Connie Lake December 15, 2011 at 10:45 PM
We are so proud of you, Brandon, and so impressed that you were well prepared to be able save another's life. How special you are and so courageous and quick thinking. God bless you. Connie and Gordon Lake
Julie McGirr December 16, 2011 at 05:57 PM
Congratulations, Brandon! So glad you were in the right place at the right time. Talk about divine intervention!
CAROLE ALLEN December 18, 2011 at 03:08 AM
Brandon, you are a most amazing young man, and, while I have never met you, I am extremely proud of you. How truly grand it is to finally hear something so utterly positive finally about a teenager in the news. Your parents must be endlessly proud of you. Can you wrap your head around the fact that you saved a LIFE, a FATHER'S LIFE, a CHILD'S FATHER, a WIFE'S HUSBAND, a FAMLY'S BROTHER AND SON, ALL of that?. Well you did!!! Again, I am proud of you, Brandon, I really am.
Kerry December 18, 2011 at 04:28 AM
What a wonderful Christmas story! Way to go young man. Of course this can not prove the theology of any one religion. This type of experience does happen to people of all different types of religions. Therefore it can not be used to validate the particular beliefs of any of them. The truth of any belief system can not be validated with any experience. If it could then all religions could claim to be the only true church, which they all do, because of an experience.
Mayor Pro Tem Dave Leckness December 18, 2011 at 05:30 PM
In an age when so many people don't seem to care about one another any more, Brandon steps up and shows us how its done. What a guy!!
Tom Bren December 19, 2011 at 01:18 AM
SMCHS should buy this kid a car or offer him a full ride scholarship. He saved the school millions of dollars in a lawsuit that could of been filed by the victims family. To have two employees pulling a cover on the pool when neither knew how to swim is negligent.
Jordan Smiley December 30, 2011 at 07:24 AM
that was a really awesome thing and probably super terrifying but rewarding. its weird how the world works, how if you showed up any later, or your sister was sick, or even you just ignored it and really thought it was people horsing around, a life would have been lost. it was like fate
Flannery4 January 01, 2012 at 10:06 PM
Amazing Kimberly. The school should "teach these men how to swim." Ever hear of personal responsibility? Maybe the school should teach them English? How about some dance lessons while we're at it? Maybe a little Botox around the eyes? I for one would not want my kid's tuition to go towards teaching maintenance guys how to swim! A great kid saves a man's life, and you are miffed because the school won't teach these guys how to swim, and won't pay for your friend's cell phone. Rather obvious where your priorities are.
Kimberly Kabrich-Parham January 01, 2012 at 11:02 PM
I agree!!! I have a daughter at this school. This was a very horrifying situation that should have never happened. I was basically referring to what Tom said about scholarship and car. They were trying to sweep it under the carpet. Brandon could have been injured in this situation because of the schools neglect. My daughter witnessed this event at the age of 12. Again Thank God for Brandon!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Kimberly Kabrich-Parham January 01, 2012 at 11:06 PM
By the way - there was more than 2 employees that could not swim.
P January 01, 2012 at 11:39 PM
Way to go Brandon! God defiantly called on you to be an Angel to Jose Luises family!! Not only did he call on you but you faithfully responded with bravery and heroism under the circumstances. God definetly protected you and Jose Luise that evening on the pool deck. Diving Into save a drowning man much bigger than yourself while his coworkers helplessly watched panicking while unable to act due to the inability to swim is admerable. Many blessings to you and you and your family! God has great things in store for you! Matthew 25:23 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness
Natalie Bernice Pugmire April 11, 2014 at 10:56 PM
Love you babe :)

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