Alumni Dies Heroically Rescuing Friends During Boat Accident
Paul Flowers Was A Mercy Graduate and Basketball Player
November 7, 2016
Edwin didn’t remember most of what happened because he was passed out on a seat in the boat. When he woke up, he didn’t know what day or time it was. All he knew was a feeling of panic and terror.
“I forgot where I was for a split second, and then I saw the waves crashing onto our boat,” Edwin recalls.
Everyone was screaming but he couldn’t pick out any definitive words. Except for one word – the name Paul.
“What is going on!” he screamed. “Where is Paul?
Paul was missing.
Edwin’s eyes couldn’t recognize anything as he was still trying to adjust himself back into reality. The rain poured down as the boat continually slammed back and forth into rocks.
Walter, one of Edwin’s fraternity friends from college, tried to start the boat up and reverse it out of the rocks. Maybe if he had remembered how the instructor taught him to move the boat, it wouldn’t have taken as long. Or maybe the storm was just getting so merciless that it was impossible to move the boat away from destruction.
Walter did what he could with a fury, but he didn’t obligate the power to save anyone or get them out of this situation. He, like everyone else on that boat, knew it wasn’t going to end well.
The anchor was still in the water, they realized, so someone had to reel it up. But before today, no one had ever driven a boat, and no one knew that one could reel the anchor up instead of diving in to get it.
Could this catastrophe been avoided? Maybe. Maybe not.
But it wasn’t, and lives would be forever changed. Not only for the people on the two boats, but also for friends from Mercy College, Miami, and Harlem.
Paul was going to go missing in just a few minutes. And then would be gone forever.
“Come out with us, Paul. Come on. It’ll be fun!” Edwin says to Paul Flowers, better known as PJ, as he tried to convince him to join along with his old fraternity buds from college for a relaxing day out on South Beach.
A day off work, sunshine, and good-looking females was all it took for him to agree to join. And the Mercy College graduate, class of 2008, was glad he did.
It was a picture perfect day on the water. The sun was beaming down, sending lasers of bright light shooting off the glistening water. As the day wore on, the waves started getting a little bigger, but nothing that would sensor any worry.
Edwin was driving one of the two rented boats.
“I was speeding up, trying to ride right through the waves instead of jumping them,” he says. “I remember PJ telling me, ‘Bro, are you trying to kill us? We are going to fall overboard!’”
So he slowed down just a little, but kept up just enough speed to make it to their destination in good time. When they safely made it to the sandbar, the two tied the two boats together and threw down the anchor, thinking it wouldn’t move.
“We had never driven a boat before so we didn’t know that when you drop an anchor, it doesn’t stay exactly in place. The anchor is still able to shift some with the current of the water and the boat rotates around it.”
As the whole crew hung around the sandbar, drinking, eating and doing backflips off the boat, it was subconsciously shifting closer and closer towards the nearby boulders of rocks.
At this point, Edwin had fallen asleep.
The waves started getting bigger and the sun was swallowed by the clouds, darkening the sky and water.
Walter suddenly realized how far the boats had moved and jumped into the water to release the anchor from the sand, eleven feet under.
PJ saw Walter battling the waves as he squirmed around like a fish out of water, trying to free the boat and his friends from disaster, so he jumped in.
Whether PJ initially jumped in to save Walter or just to release the anchor, we will never know. But what is clear is that after one man in the water turned into two, seven men ended up swarming within the waves.
“It went from one man to seven men in the water, begging for someone to help save their lives,” said a female passenger on the boat who asked The Impact not to identify her.
Walter and five of the other men realized they were fighting an impossible battle and swam to the ladder of the boat and got out before it was too late, but Paul wasn’t ready to give up.
That’s just the type of person he was. A hero.
With regret taking over his voice, Edwin says, “I was still asleep by this point, and as much as I wish I had been awake to help, I’m kind of glad I wasn’t at the same time.” He pauses for a moment. “I was a lifeguard when I was younger, so it would’ve been too hard for me to watch him and know there was nothing I could do to help.”
The water police patrol showed up to gather both boats and took them back to shore safely. Yet something was wrong. Someone was missing.
“Where’s PJ?” everyone began to ask frantically as they shivered.
Someone said they saw a white boat pick him up, and that PJ was safe.
“Well, where is the white boat?” Edwin asked.
No one answered. No one knew. Was there really a white boat, or had the white storm taken him away?
PJ was drowning. He was so far underwater that his vision was blurred and he was breathing nothing but unsatisfying ocean water. The waves engulfed his lungs, and the salt burned his eyes until he went blind. He was helpless. Once a powerful athlete, he became defenseless, vulnerable and powerless.
As PJ was lost in the rollers fighting for his life, his friends were on shore panicking, hoping he was alive somewhere.
“I was hoping he was ok, and telling everyone he was fine. After all, it was Paul. He was invincible,” Edwin says.
Hours later, Edwin was back in his apartment with his eyes glued to the television and hands clenching his phone, hoping PJ would call.
“His phone and ID were on the boat and I knew he didn’t have my phone number memorized, so I wasn’t sure how he would’ve even gotten ahold of me.”
Then they all heard it on the television. The local news station reported: “Top story: man missing in South Beach. Body has not yet been found.”
For hours on end, the news said nothing more than that, like a record on repeat.
Edwin called his and PJ’s manager, Jaemes Hunt, from 1st Line Global, asking if he had heard from PJ.
“No, why?” Jaemes tiredly says back to him as he clearly had just woken up.
Edwin shrugged it off making up a nonchalant excuse of why he had called at such an unruly hour to ask.
Edwin continued to sit in front of the television hoping some sort of new information would be released.
Around 1 a.m., the broadcaster broke the news to the group of friends hoping for better news.
“Man Found,” the news station announced.
But was it PJ?
Maybe it was someone else’s body,” Edwin thought to himself, hoping to God it wasn’t him.
But no one would release information telling who it was.
“It was frustrating that I was having to get all my information off the TV and Internet. I was with him. They should’ve been calling me with updated information on his status,” Edwin remarks.
He guessed the only way to find out whose body it was to visit the mortuary. He asked to see the body that he prayed was not Paul Flowers.
“We are not authorized to show you the body,” one of the doctors told Edwin.
“I was with him on the boat,” Edwin told him. “His family lives in New York, so I’m all he has.”
After thorough questioning and handing over all identification and his social security, they showed him a few pictures.
But that wasn’t enough. He had to see the body. He had to know for sure whether it was his best friend that was lying on that slab. Naked and alone.
A doctor led him back to a backroom. Edwin’s legs went numb, not able to take another step forward. He wasn’t ready. He’d never be ready to face the truth.
They pulled the sheet back.
“It was the most surreal moment of my life. It wouldn’t soak in,” Edwin told me, his heart sinking back into his chest.
“That’s not Paul. That’s not superhero Paul, that’s just someone that looks like him. That’s not him,” he kept telling himself as he stepped away from the table that showed the cold, lifeless body.
His mouth stood open, but he breathed in nothing. His 6’2 body laid there flat on the table, his arms and legs out at his side. His color was tainted, almost blue, showing no circulation in his veins, no heartbeat. He didn’t look real. He looked like a wax clone.
But it was real, because 31-year old Paul Flowers was dead.
“I’m not going to believe it until I know for sure. Until they announce he is dead, I’m not going to believe it,” she kept telling herself.
When Justin McMullen, Paul Flowers best friend, first called Erin Burns, the coast guard hadn’t found his body yet. With her in New York, and the calamity in Miami, FL., information was scarce.
As she sat around anxiously waiting the potentially dreadful news, she thought back to how they first met.
Close friends Erin, Justin, Sierra Dyer and PJ met at Mercy College through the Media Studies department.
“I remember the first time I met him. His laugh was so distinct; you couldn’t help but turn and notice him. It was just the best laugh. And that smile would brighten anyone’s day,” she said as her voice smiled through the phone.
Besides being the same major, they also had basketball in common as they both played on Mercy College’s basketball teams along with their mutual friends Justin and Davilla Moore.
“We all became a super close knit group through basketball,” Sierra says, now an instructor of Communication Studies courses.
Her favorite memory with PJ was their senior year when her, PJ, Justin and Davilla were on their home stretch to graduation. They rallied together and supported one another entirely so that nobody had a misstep and got left behind. Through their dedication to one another, they graduated together in May of 2008.
After graduation, they all went their separate ways and struggled to keep in touch.
Sierra began working in Manhattan doing marketing for a fashion company and was always dolled up: hair done nicely, make-up perfecting her face, and clothes that made her look even more successful than she already was. She was hardly recognizable compared to her college years when she was always seen in basketball shorts and a t-shirt.
Her and PJ would randomly run into each other on the streets and it was always be the highlight to their week.
“I mean, what are the odds of you running into someone in New York City?” Sierra recalls one specific time when she ran into him.
She was paying attention to the pizza in her hands, starving, and glanced up for a split second to make sure she wasn’t about to walk into anybody or anything.
They locked eyes and busted out into laughter.
“This ain’t you. Where’s your ball shorts?” he jokingly shouted to her.
Though to her, it was always a nice surprise to run into PJ, she had no idea it would be the last time she ever saw those pearly whites.
Sadly, this wasn’t her first rodeo though. She had experienced this type of loss before.
About four years back, Davilla, a member of the NYPD, passed away.
“It was like we were losing people back to back,” Sierra sadly says over the phone. “I couldn’t believe PJ died after what we had just gone through with Davilla.”
And the irony is when Davilla died, Sierra was the one to call up Justin and inform him of the tragic news. When PJ went missing, Justin was the one to in turn, notify her.
At such a young age, both their friends lost their lives being heroes.
Though it was hard-hitting hearing about PJ’s death, Sierra wasn’t surprised because, “he was just that type of person.”
College life is full of laughs, while adult life stings. “It sucks that the only time you are seeing people is when someone has passed away.”
But even though it was a misfortune that brought old Mercy alumnus back together, it reminded Sierra how important her relationships with old friends are.
“His death reminded me to continue to foster those relationships and not let things get away. Mercy molded who we are so it’s important to keep in touch.” She continues, “Moving forward means feeling blessed that I have friends in my life that I can share experiences with, regarding PJ and Davilla.”
That’s all the group of friends are left with: remembering the good times and holding onto the memories.
Pick up the December issue of The Impact to read the second part of the Paul Flowers story, featuring his Mercy College basketball career and his heroic legacy.
Flowers’ Former Coach Praises His Leadership; Friends Mourn Loss
“It was surreal. You hear about young people leaving us too early, but this was the first time I’ve ever lost a former player like this. I’ve lost friends and family to cancer, but never a player and never like this,” Anthony Staffiere says.
Anthony was Paul “P.J.” Flowers’ basketball coach through his senior year at Mercy. Anthony spoke of how gifted he was.
“He was one of those players who was position-less. He could play whatever I needed him to,” he says. “He had Division 1 talent. Man, could he score.”
In the 2007-2008 season, PJ played in all 27 games, starting in 17 of them. He was ranked eighth in the nation and second in the conference, averaging 2.6 steals per game. He picked up a career-high of eight steals in back-to-back games versus Bloomfield on Dec. 3, 2006 and NYIT on Dec. 9, as well as a career-highs of 19 points and nine rebounds versus Bloomfield on Jan. 4, 2007. Going a perfect 15-of-15 at the free throw line, he scored double-digits seven times.
Not only was Paul the best athlete Anthony has ever coached to this day, but he was always looking out for Anthony too.
“I would get roused up during a game and would just look at PJ’s face. He didn’t have to say a word because his expression always said it all: ‘We are ok, coach,’” and that’s all Anthony needed to see to calm down.
Even when the players became rattled during games, PJ was always there to cool them down. He never screamed or shouted at anyone. Instead, he would just give you that grin, which is why his players and coach would refer to him as “Chester The Cat,” and then after cracking a joke or two, he would put his arm around them and remind them that everything was going to be ok.
Anthony states those teams played hard, but didn’t win much, lacking size and depth.
“Many times he was the difference in most of those games,” Anthony states.
But PJ was not only a team player on the court, but off the court as well.
Jimmy Gunville, a freshman at Mercy College at the time, was having a hard season until PJ stepped in to help.
“He couldn’t defend a chair if you asked him to. But he had unlimited range (as a shooter),” Anthony jokes in fond remembrance.
But to no surprise, Paul took him under his wing. He would invite Jimmy to sit with him at lunch and would make it a point to hang out with him off the court. After much mentoring, Jimmy not only hit an important game winning shot during the season, but later became a starter.
You could tell how infectious he was because his teammates loved him. He was a brother-like figure not only to Jimmy, but to all of them.
“I can’t think of one person who wouldn’t say their favorite teammate wasn’t Paul,” Anthony says. “Those guys mourned more than anybody when he died.”
Anthony found out about PJ’s death from one of his teammates, Orlando Daniel, when he sent him the article from the Miami Herald explaining his death.
“Not only was it tragic, but it was heroic. He was a hero.”
At the time of his death, Anthony was coaching for Central Maine’s high school girl’s basketball team. One day before practice, he sat his team down and showed them the Miami Herald‘s article.
“This is what coaches live for: To make heroes,” he tells them. “PJ had so much life. He was so successful after college; he had the drive and initiative and was a team player. He was everything a coach desires to see in players once they move on with their lives.”
Anthony reminisced with PJ’s teammates after his passing and vocalized that he would like Mercy to have its yearly alumni basketball games dedicated to him.
Though he hadn’t seen Paul in seven years, he still kept in contact with him via social media. He wrote to him:
“Thank you for putting up with me and my craziness and insanity. I’m extremely proud of you for becoming what we envision student athletes to be, not only heroic on the floor, but past that.”
Erin used to live on the same floor as Paul in the dorms.
“We always saw each other in the dorms but never said anything to one another,” she says, “until we had a journalism class together with Prof. Perrota.”
As most media studies would agree, Erin spoke highly of the what is now the Communications and Arts Department, not only because it was like one big family, but also brought her to PJ. He was a corporate communications major, and those students would often take media classes.
Though he was very focused on school and basketball, he was also the class clown and because of that, everyone knew his name. He was the master prankster.
“He would set up garbage cans in front of people’s dorm room, and when they would open their door from the inside, the can would tip right over into their room,” Erin says as she lets out a loud laugh.
But for all the funny things he did, it wasn’t what she remembers most.
Erin’s last semester at Mercy, she found out she was going to be a mother. Her friends threw a baby shower for her and of course, PJ was there supporting her 100 percent.
“He told me, ‘You’re going to be a great mom. You have one lucky kid on the way,’ and I will never forget those words.”
Though PJ will never have the opportunity to see her daughter grow, he will always be a part of her child’s life just by believing in her ability to raise the child in the exact way she has.
When PJ passed, Erin was devastated and shocked.
“I hadn’t talked to Paul since we graduated from Mercy,” Erin states, “But I didn’t cry. I couldn’t.”
Knowing how PJ passed away, Erin commended him for being a hero.
“He did a selfless act. It was so Paul.”
The word proud first comes to mind. She is nothing but proud of him for putting himself on the line to save someone else’s life.
“It was admirable and because of that, I don’t get sad with Paul. I praise him because he went out a champion.”
When Edwin called Jaemes late that night, he knew something was wrong, and after he hung up the phone with Edwin, he couldn’t sleep.
“Both Edwin and I knew deep down inside that the worst had probably happened, but we didn’t want to believe it. We expected to see him at work the next day,” Jaemes says.
As he lay in bed wide awake with fear of getting that dreaded phone call with bad news, he began reminiscing on the first time he met PJ and the memories they shared until this point.
“My first impressions of Paul weren’t spectacular. He didn’t talk much and didn’t seem interested in the position,” Jaemes says as he speaks of his experience interviewing Paul for a job.
Jaemes ran his marketing business for 1st Line Global in the U.K. and wanted to expand to the U.S.
But as many people’s first impressions are, he was very wrong about the man he nicknamed TP, short for Tall Paul.
“I pre-judged his quietness with someone who was born miserable. He was just so humble.”
TP’s first day in sales was a complete success.
“He rocked it! He was so approachable and he was just what I needed,” Jaemes enthusiastically says.
His dedication and talent was impeccable, and because of that, PJ was extremely close to being manager.
“I was about to have him open up his own office in New York, so that he could be closer to home and his mom,” Jaemes says.
But now he will never get that chance to live his dream.
If there was one thing all his colleagues appreciated about him, it would’ve been how grateful he was with everything in life.
When TP first started working for Jaemes in Miami, he didn’t own a suit. “So we bought him a suit. He didn’t take it for granted at all and was so grateful. And man, he looked sharp as hell, too,” Jaemes says.
Those few months in close quarters helped them grow closer not only as colleagues, but as friends. Sabrina too. Sabrina and PJ were roommates and colleagues. But more than that, he was like a father figure to her.
“When he didn’t come home that night, I typed his name up in Google and saw that there had been a body found,” Sabrina remembers.
At work, she approached Edwin and asked where PJ was and Edwin shrugged it off because he didn’t want to scare her or any other employees before they knew the full story.
The moment she found out, she was shocked.
“How the hell did this happen? He was such a big guy. Indestructible,” she continued, “It sounds like something that would happen in a movie so I didn’t believe it until I went into the office and he wasn’t there.”
Sabrina recalls her favorite memory with him, and thought, “Which one would he want me to tell?”
She remembers awhile back when PJ sent her an email about his expectations and goals for her.
“At first the letter angered me, but then I realized I needed to hear it and it was eye opening. That was him being that father-figure to me and I needed it.”
She cherishes that note now and wishes he was still there to tell her how it is, and give her life advice.
“I miss you,” she says quietly, “Your family will be well taken care of and we will look after them for you. I’ll see you soon.”
Edwin still shakes his head in disbelief.
“Everything is my fault. I convinced him to go to that party in the first place,” Edwin despairingly says.
Would things have ended differently if he had stayed awake? Or if there had been no alcohol on the boat?
Some members of PJ’s family began reaching out to Edwin through social media, blaming him for their loved ones death.
“What do I say back to his family? Do I ignore them? Do I try to be comforting? Do I tell them I just don’t know?” Edwin says with confusion and heartbreak.
He didn’t even have a chance to soak it in himself, and people were already contacting him with questions and condemning him.
This is what Edwin knew. Paul moved down to Miami for his family. Paul told Edwin he wanted to change his family tree. He was seeking a better life, mainly for his mother. He wanted more for her. That’s what he knew.
Edwin’s first day back at work, he simply stopped. He looked in the corner where PJ was supposed to be sitting. The desk was empty. He wasn’t there and never would be again. He was gone.
Colleagues began coming up to him, and instead of giving him their shoulder to cry on, it was the other way around.
“I didn’t know how to be this shoulder for them because I hadn’t been able to cope with it yet myself.”
At 1st Line Global, the employees learned something important: You are your brother’s keeper.
“Paul taught me that. He taught me that it’s up to you and you are in charge of what happens in your life and your surroundings.”
The business shook when Paul died.
“He wanted to help anyone in any way he could. He worked six days a week and never complained. He helped people more than anyone ever expected of him.”
To this day, Edwin still blames himself completely.
“You’re not supposed to question God, but it just doesn’t make sense how this was in His will,” Edwin’s voice quivers.
He will always feel as if he could’ve done more and because he didn’t, PJ, his family and close friends will miss out on so many memories with him.
Jaemes is about to propose to his girlfriend, and though PJ didn’t know it, Jaemes was going to ask him to be his best man in the wedding.
“…and I robbed Jaemes of having that,” Edwin mumbles.
But life moves on. Edwin will always appreciate the memories they shared and will eternally feel a strong loss for one of the most influential people in his life.
“Thank you for changing my life. You were my brother and I love you. You’re the reason I am where I am now, and I will never give up because I’ll be doing it for you.”
Jaemes went to PJ’s funeral back in New York, and it was surreal.
“I was able to say goodbye and get my closure. It took me awhile to accept the situation, but going to his funeral helped.”
Getting him home wasn’t going to be easy, and it was going to be costly. With PJ’s body in Florida and his family in New York, his mother wanted to ship her son’s body back home but discovered it would cost $35,000. As desperation took over, she decided to produce a Gofundme page in hopes that people would donate in honor of Paul.
“The company donated a large amount, and then assisted in managing the Gofundme site to help his mom,” Jaemes says. “We just wanted to finish off what Paul had started.”
And clearly, they did. As of eight months ago, with the help of 282 people, $25,290 was raised.
Shortly after, the friends and family who loved him decided to honor him by playing the sport he loved.
On Aug. 14, the first annual Paul Flowers Memorial Game was held at Rucker Park in Harlem. In remembrance, the Hostos All Stars played against Paul Flowers All Stars, and afterwards reminisced about the good ol’ days and shared their stories of Paul. Bob McCullough, a mentor to PJ, helped organize this event and felt honored to be able to do so.
“I knew him since he was 19. He was my little brother,” McCullough says as emotions took over his voice. “I felt guilty. I tried to prepare him for life but didn’t mentor him on the afterlife.”
He sighs. “I just didn’t have enough time.”
Following the faint sounds of sniffling, quietness filled the phone-line for a few moments, until he gathered himself to speak up just one more time. “I have to go. I’m getting emotional.”
And just like that, as the sound of the line went flat, McCullough was gone.
Jaemes understands that feeling too. As he stood on the basketball court that ultimately shaped PJ’s life, he took a deep sign and let the memories soak in.
“It made it real. Seeing that court and people lining up around to show respect made it so real.”
When he spoke to PJ’s mother, his heart broke realizing she lost her son. He lost a friend and an employee, but she lost her son.
“I’ll be telling my children stories of him and I hope that when I have kids, I can do what his mom did and raise my kids the way Paul was raised.”