"He's my older brother," the 70-year-old Esmay joked Tuesday while visiting Pierce, who is 76. "We'd do anything for each other," Esmay said.
In their case, doing anything means they have each saved the other's life.
Several years apart, Pierce and Esmay both suffered heart attacks. They were lucky enough to be in the other's company both times. In life-or-death moments, the friends were calm but quick. They both took lifesaving action.
"I don't consider it being a hero," Esmay said. "I would have done it for anyone, and Gene feels the same."
The Marysville men are among 22 people, a rescue organization and one business being honored this morning at the American Red Cross Snohomish County Chapter's Real Heroes Breakfast. A fundraiser for the agency, the 17th annual breakfast is being held in the Tulalip Resort Casino's Orca Ballroom.
Read more of the Real Heroes' stories here.
Pierce is still recovering from the massive heart attack he had Aug. 29, 2011, and his quadruple bypass surgery last December. Esmay will never forget the summer day that started with early-morning fishing, and a 16-pound silver on his line.
They were in Esmay's 20-foot boat, off Possession Point about four miles south of Mukilteo.
"I had caught a fish, and Gene netted it for me," Esmay said. Pierce was putting his line back in the water when Esmay heard his friend say "Oh my God."
"I thought he had a fish. He was just keeling over. Fortunately, I was able to catch his head," Esmay said.
In an instant, Esmay used CPR training he learned years ago when he worked aboard a Seattle-based charter boat. "I was hitting him on the chest, and with the other hand dialing my cellphone," he said.
After calling 911, he was told to get to the boat launch at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park as fast as possible.
Pierce had no pulse when Esmay began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions. He raced toward the dock, but stopped several times to use CPR and check for a pulse. He continued chest compressions as he ran the boat, but kept losing the pulse. "I lost him each time I did this," Esmay said.
An aid crew from the Mukilteo Fire Department was waiting at the dock, and used electric shock several times before racing Pierce to ProvidenceRegional Medical Center Everett. Doris Pierce said doctors later told her that when her husband arrived at the hospital's Colby campus, he had a 2 percent chance of survival.
At Pierce's house Tuesday, the men recalled when tables were turned and it was Esmay who needed help.
"It was five or six years ago," Esmay said. He was driving his Ford pickup, with Pierce in the passenger seat, along State Avenue in Marysville. "I pulled up to a signal light. I felt a little dizzy and told Gene, 'You'd better drive,' " Esmay recalled.
Esmay passed out, and Pierce steered the car to the side of the road, moved his friend over, and drove to Providence hospital's Colby campus. "I had a stent put in. I've been fine ever since," Esmay said.
Both men were well enough to take a hunting trip to Eastern Washington last month, an annual tradition. They have been friends and neighbors more than 30 years.
Esmay is amazed the lifesaving training he had in his teens, before working aboard a 95-foot charter boat "The Pagan," came back to him the moment he needed it.
"How it came back after all those years, it still baffles me. If this helps one person take a (CPR) class, it's well worth it," Esmay said.
Kristi Myers, chief development officer with the local Red Cross, said today's breakfast is the organization's major fundraiser.
Along with the people honored for their bravery, Grainger Industrial Supply is being recognized with the Spirit of Red Cross Award. The Illinois-based company, which has an Everett branch, has given millions of dollars nationwide to support relief efforts.
Recently, Myers said, Grainger team members were involved in a "Ready When the Time Comes" volunteer effort that helped on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy.
"Their employees are already trained to jump right up and help," Myers said.
Today's breakfast "is an opportunity to honor these amazing heroes in our community," she said. "These heroes were there when they were needed, and the Red Cross is always here to help."
Esmay doesn't feel like a hero. Coming to someone's aid "is just something you do," he said.
He's grateful he didn't lose his longtime friend.
"Somebody upstairs gave him a second chance," Esmay said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about this year's heroes here.
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