A California father says he feared he and his family wouldn’t survive after they became stranded in their Hawaii rental home during a severe flood while on vacation last weekend. Now, the man is thanking pro surfer Laird Hamilton for saving him, his wife and their three children.
Jamas and Erin Gwilliam arrived in Hanalei on the north shore of Kauai along with their children — ages, 11, 9 and 6 — on April 9 and spent several days hiking, surfing and lounging on the beach. But tragedy struck less than a week later, last Saturday, when record-breaking rainfall struck the Hawaiian island.
“The rain just kept getting more and more intense throughout the day. Before we knew it, by mid-afternoon, we were stranded,” Jamas, 38, tells PEOPLE. “I had never seen so much rain. It was insane. Water was all around the house. It was really scary. I was wondering if we were gonna get out of there.”
The unprecedented floodwaters measured more than 28 inches on Saturday, destroying homes, damaging bridges, and making it difficult to use the roads, according to CBS News.
“Erin and I tried to stay calm. When the thunder and lightening started on Saturday night, there were definitely some tears shed. It was a sleepless night,” Gwilliam tells PEOPLE. He says the entire house was surrounded by water, but none got inside as the home sat on a hill.
U.S. Coast Guard officials said rescues in Hanalei were impossible. So, Hamilton, a big wave surfing legend, took matters into his own hands.
“He was kind of rallying the troops. Here was a guy who was using the skills and resources he had available to make a difference, not waiting for emergency personnel to come,” Gwilliam says, adding that he contacted a friend who sent Hamilton to help.
Following his friend’s instruction, Gwilliam and his family fled to the edge of a nearby river on Monday where he was told to “wait for Laird.”
“We were like, ‘Wait for Laird? Like, Laird Hamilton?’ ” Gwilliam recalls. “When we made it to the edge of the river [Laird] pulled the boat up and I handed my kids to him and helped my wife get into the boat. I helped him push the boat off the side of the bank and he took us down the river. Laird had a home on the other side of the river — the safe side of the river.”
Hamilton, 54, had been coordinating with friends to pick up several people stranded by the waters. Gwilliam says the pro surfer was “kind” and helped to calm his children. Now, with the Gwilliams back home in San Diego, Hamilton is still doing all he can to help those on the rain-soaked island. The athlete and his crew have been shuttling the people across the river, to his home and ultimately to a nearby fire station.
Hamilton did not immediately respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE.
“He was super amazing. He’s calm under pressure and he was taking it very seriously,” he tells PEOPLE. “It was pretty impressive, but hes a humble guy and I know he doesn’t want the spotlight on him.”
In the wake of the rescue, Gwilliam has been using his story to raise awareness about the harsh floods. Hamilton’s wife, Gabby, set up a GoFundMe page to benefit those affected by the flood.