A frantic woman was racing along the shoreline about 30 yards from the 317-foot drop. And in the water, a young boy in a red shirt was rapidly bobbing over rocks as he was swept toward certain death. He apparently had slipped into the river while trying to retrieve a water bottle he had dropped.
"When I heard the scream and saw the boy, I thought, 'Oh no, oh my God, no,'" said Melissa Smith of South San Jose. "Then I blinked and saw (my son) going after him."
Coincidentally, just before the trip, the five members of the Smith family and two relatives had talked about the park's dangers, as they remembered how two young boys were swept away and drowned in the Merced while on a family outing. The previous year, Vernal Fall had claimed three Central Valley residents when one slipped into the rapids and the others tried to save her.
"Nobody has ever survived going over the fall," said Yosemite park ranger Kari Cobb.
The take-to-the-trail lesson: Don't mess with the water, especially at the top of Vernal Fall.
But Alec Smith, a beefy 16-year-old linebacker at San Jose's Leigh High School, acknowledged he wasn't really thinking when he vaulted a protective barrier Tuesday and rushed toward the water. He focused only on the red shirt coming downstream and set his trajectory so they met simultaneously at the water's edge, with Alec crooking one arm around a dry rock while reaching out with the other.
"I got half my body in the water and kept the other half out," Alec said. "I grabbed the kid, and got a good hold, but I could feel him slipping a little bit, but then his dad grabbed me."
With Alec's dad now nearby as a backup catcher, Alec wrenched the 9-year-old boy out of the water, about 20 feet from the cascade's lip.
"If he'd hesitated, the kid would have been gone," said Alec's uncle, Jerry Ramsey, who witnessed the incident. "If he had used bad judgment, that would have been it."
Cobb couldn't comment on the rescue because it was not reported to Yosemite rangers. But she said they hear about such "self-rescues" happening each year, although too often they hear the tragic results when the ending isn't so happy.
"It is very common that rescuers will drown when they are trying to rescue the initial person who went in," she said. "And in a situation with rushing water it's extremely dangerous for everyone that's exactly what happened in 2011, each one was trying to rescue each other."
Alec's mom clutched her son for two minutes after he'd gotten back over the safety barrier. The 9-year-old's mom hugged Alec and called him "my hero," and his dad was nearly speechless, repeatedly thanking Alec, according to the Smith family. About an hour later, as the families eased their nerves before making the return hike to Happy Isle, the young boy approached Alec.
"He was still shaking like a Chihuahua," Alec said. "He came up to me with his head down and said, 'Thank you for saving my life.'"
The Smith family doesn't know anything about the boy and his family other than his name is Alex and he has an identical twin brother named Alan. They said they would love to contact them, just to see how they are doing.
Alec's father Justin Smith said his son's deed was part "teenage invincibility."
"He didn't realize the danger until he looked back on it, but what he did was heroic," he said.
Alec puts a philosophic spin on it.
"Don't think about what could have happened," he said. "Be grateful for what did happen."