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Disney motto helped dad, autistic son survive at sea

Swept out to sea with his 12-year-old autistic son Christopher, Walter Marino relied on phrases from Disney movies to help them both survive in the pitch-dark waters overnight. “I kept screaming, ‘To infinity ...  and beyond!’  ” Marino said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Lost at sea with nothing to hold onto amid a dreadful darkness, Florida resident Walter Marino continually called out some of the few words his 12-year-old autistic son Christopher responds to. The pair, swept out in a late-afternoon current near Daytona Beach, had been treading water in shark- and jellyfish-infested waters throughout the night, slowly floating apart.

“I’d be screaming, ‘To infinity ... and beyond!’ ” Marino said, referring to the Disney character Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase in “Toy Story,” one of Christopher’s favorite movies. “Then I would hear him and it would be more and more and more distant, until finally I couldn’t hear anything.”

Happily — perhaps miraculously — both father and son survived the night, thanks to good Samaritans and the U.S. Coast Guard. Walter and Christopher Marino, along with Walter’s daughter Angela and the children’s mother, Robin Bishop, beamed their way through a joyous interview with Matt Lauer on TODAY Wednesday.

Walter, Christopher and Angela were enjoying a family day at the beach at the Ponce Inlet south of Daytona Sept. 6. Late in the afternoon, Christopher was swimming near his father when he got caught in a current, and his dad paddled rapidly to retrieve him.

“We were both just sucked out,” Marino told Lauer. “The forces just took us out so quickly, it totally took me by surprise.”

Darkness falls
On the beach, Angela could no longer see her father and brother and quickly called 911. The Coast Guard and the Volusia County Beach Patrol launched a search-and-rescue effort, but were unable to locate the pair and called off the search when darkness set in.

Meanwhile, Walter and Christopher treaded water while looking at each other face to face. Christopher, who is largely nonverbal, “watches a lot of Disney movies,” explained his father, and Walter kept calling out Christopher’s favorite Disney lines, including the “Infinity” phrase.

But as the hours ticked off in the dark night, Walter could no longer hear his son. He tried to reconcile himself to the worst.

“I knew in my mind he was gone,” Marino told Lauer. “The only thing that got me through was I could not lose my daughter. I could not let my daughter lose her brother and her father on the same day.”

Around 7:30 a.m. the next morning, fishermen spotted a glint in the water from Walter’s necklace and rescued him. With the fate of Christopher still unknown at the time, Walter had little hope of finding his son alive.

Three long steps
“The Coast Guard asked me if I wanted to be evacuated to a helicopter to go to the hospital, or stay on the boat and continue the search,” he said. “I stayed on the search. They asked me if I wanted to be above or below — I chose to be below, because I knew in my mind that Christopher was gone and I didn’t want to see my son floating facedown.”

After nearly two hours, the Coast Guard asked Marino to come on deck. “That was my Green Mile,” he told Lauer. “I thought they wanted me to come up and identify the body. Those three steps, I just needed help to get to the top.

I got up there and they pointed to the helicopter and said, ‘See that helicopter over there? That has your son, and he’s fine.’

“I never kissed so many Coast Guard men in my life!”

Christopher was picked up some 3 miles from where his father was found, and some 8 miles from shore.

While an animated Marino showered his rescuers with thanks, appreciation — and yes, kisses — he also cited plucky Christopher as a hero, saying the boy actually helped his father get through the nightmare ordeal.

“His lack of fear was calming to me,” Marino said. “He was on an adventure — I mean, he was laughing. It was just a day in the ocean to him. It wasn’t until the jellyfish started stinging that he started to freak out a little bit.”

Marino also offered a shout-out to the animated superhero who helped him communicate with his son. “Buzz Lightyear got us through,” he said.

Rescue team member David Birky said he was awed at Christopher’s resolve. “That kid is an amazing kid,” Birky said. “To tread water for almost 14 hours — I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could do that. They have amazing willpower to be able to do it.”