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Breakthrough: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace

Chrissy Metz
Born: September 29, 1980
Homestead, Florida, USA
Joyce Smith
Born: abt 1957
Birthplace: Wichita, Kansas, USA
Marcel Ruiz
Born: July 9, 2003
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
John Smith
Birthplace: Sansare, Guatemala
Josh Lucas
Born: June 20, 1971
Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA
Brian Smith
Topher Grace
Born: July 12, 1978
New York City, New York, USA
Pastor Jason Noble
Mike Colter
Born: August 26, 1976
Columbia, South Carolina, USA
Tommy Shine

Wentzville Fire Department Captain
Victor Zinck Jr.
Born: 1986
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Joe Morrow

Wentzville Fire Department Engineer
Dennis Haysbert
Born: June 2, 1954
San Mateo, California, USA
Dr. Jeremy Garrett

Pediatric Critical Care Doctor
Sam Trammell
Born: January 29, 1969
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Dr. Kent Sutterer
Born: October 3, 1971
Birthplace: USA

Emergency Room Physician
Chuck Shamata
Born: 1942
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Mike Marlo
Born: abt 1949
Birthplace: USA

Wentzville Fire Department Chief

Questioning the Story:

Why were John Smith and his friends on the ice?

"You don't expect to be in that situation," John Smith said. "We all thought that we were just going to have fun, to celebrate. It's a holiday. We'd just won a basketball game, so we were just going to have a good time, but we weren't expecting that [with] one wrong move, we would be all one second away from dying." The photo shown below of then 14-year-old John and his friends on the ice on Lake Sainte Louise was taken the night before the drowning, after the basketball game, when it was a lot colder and the ice was thicker. The next day it was in the mid-50s and the ice had melted some. In the movie, they are only shown going on the ice once, the day they fell in. -FOX 11

John Smith (right) is pictured with friends Joshua Rieger (left) and Joshua Sander (center). All three boys fell through the ice when they returned to the lake the following day.

Did the kids know that the ice was unsafe?

Yes. The Breakthrough true story reveals that the temperature had risen to close to 60 degrees that day and the ice on Lake Sainte Louise (near St. Louis, Missouri) had started to melt. "We could still step on it, but it was startin' to give way and water was going on top of it," recalled John. The three boys cracked the ice before stepping on it to see if it was thick enough to walk on. -FOX 11

Was John Smith really under water for 15 minutes?

Yes. Our Breakthrough fact check confirms that John Smith was under water for approximately 15 minutes before rescuers, including Tommy Shine, found him on the rocky bottom of the lake and pulled him to the surface. John was in the frigid water for a total of more than 20 minutes.

The real John Smith (left) was under water for roughly 15 minutes, similar to Marcel Ruiz's character (right) in the movie.

Did John's rescuer, Tommy Shine, really hear a voice when he was in the water, telling him to keep searching?

This is somewhat dramatized in the movie. In The Impossible book, Joyce Smith mentions that something in Tommy Shine's spirit "prompted and almost pushed him to move in a different direction, straight toward the ice shelf." It was "a feeling as though someone were next to him guiding him." Using a ten-foot long pole with a hook on the end, he poked around the rocky bottom of the lake near the ice ledge and found John Smith. Tommy pulled John to the surface. Tommy Shine himself is never quoted talking about this spiritual nudge in the book, nor does he bring it up with his chief at the station.

In the movie, Tommy Shine (Mike Colter) is also portrayed as being an agnostic who finds faith after witnessing the miracle of John Smith surviving the drowning. However, his religion is never discussed in the book. It appears that this spiritual transformation is fictional.

How deep was the lake where John and his two friends fell in?

The lake was about 10 feet deep where John and his two friends went through the ice. After John succumbed to the frigid lake and drowned, his lifeless body was discovered on the rocky bottom.

Tommy Shine and fellow rescuers attempt to revive John Smith as they're pulled back across the ice to safety. The hole in the ice where they rescued John is visible behind them.

Does John Smith remember anything from the day he drowned?

Yes. "I remember the screams," Smith says. "'Call 911! I don't wanna die!'" He remembers being under water and coming up above the ice. He recalls fighting for his life and the burning sensation of the frigid water and the ice cutting his skin as he tried to climb out." He says that he tried to push ice to his friends for them to grab on to so they could get out. Josh Rieger's sister Jamie called 911, and the manager of a nearby apartment complex took over the call. You can listen to the real 911 call. In the movie, Josh's sister Jamie is not present at the lake. -FOX 11

How did the other two boys get out of the water?

John's friend Joshua Sander managed to pull himself out. The other boy, Joshua Rieger, was trying to get out by pushing onto the ice and pulling himself, but the ice kept breaking. He was eventually pulled out when rescue personnel arrived.

Had Joyce Smith been talking to her son seconds before he went through the ice?

Yes. In the film, they are just texting, but in real life, they talked on the phone after first texting. "I'd talked to him moments before he went into the water," Joyce Smith said. "In fact, he basically hung up the phone from me and the ice cracked under [him], he went under. So that was around 11:30 a.m. They called me at 11:52 a.m. to tell me." -FOX 11

Joyce Smith (left) talked to her son moments before he went through the ice and drowned. Chrissy Metz (right) portrays Joyce in the movie.

How long did John Smith have no pulse?

In researching the Breakthrough true story, we learned that John Smith was without a pulse for about an hour. He'd spent 15 minutes under water and another 40-plus minutes without a heartbeat after he was pulled from the lake. It was during that time that he was technically dead. "No spontaneous respirations. No heart tones. In essence, he was cold and he was dead. He was gone," said Dr. Kent Sutterer, the ER doctor on duty that day. Dr. Sutterer is portrayed by Sam Trammell in the movie. -CBN

Doctors thought that there was little hope that John Smith would survive drowning in the icy lake.

Did John's heart start beating again after his mother prayed next to him?

Yes. The doctor approached Joyce and told her she could go up and talk to her son to say her goodbyes. "He was doing that because he was getting ready to call time of death," says Joyce. She walked up to the end of the bed and touched his feet, which were the only part of his extremities that were uncovered. She recalls them being cold and grey. It was then that she began to pray out loud desperately. "'Holy Spirit, please come and give me back my son.' And within moments, he started to have a heartbeat," Joyce recalled. Her son John had been without a pulse for roughly an hour and the doctors had been trying to revive him for half an hour.

Like in the movie, John Smith's pulse returned moments after his mother began to pray aloud, asking God to give her back her son.

Is actress Chrissy Metz (who plays Joyce) a believer in the power of prayer?

Yes. "It's helped me so much in my life," she told Inside Edition, "and I think it's the reason why I'm standing here, you know, at this incredible premiere."

Did a prayer chain really go viral as John lay unresponsive in the hospital?

Yes. Friends gathered at the hospital to pray for John. His story went viral as prayer chains spread through Facebook. "Facebook was just blowing up," says his mother, Joyce. "My phone was coming off the wall – people praying, people sending me scriptures that they were praying for John." -CBN

It's true that a prayer chain for John Smith went viral on Facebook.

Did Joyce and the pastor get into an argument?

No. The real Pastor Jason Noble admitted that this scene is fictional. "We've actually never been in an argument," he told KSDK News. He said that though the argument never happened, it did represent what they were going through as a church at that time.

"He's like one of my kids," added Joyce.

Did the doctors believe that John wouldn't survive the first night?

Yes. Doctor Garrett (Dennis Haysbert) tells the family this in the movie and it lines up with the Breakthrough true story. "Doctors told us that John wasn't going to live through the night," says Joyce Smith. Though his heartbeat had returned, John only had brainstem function and his blood oxygen levels were critical. Like in the movie, Joyce wouldn't let the doctors say anything negative in the room. It took almost 48 hours before John opened his eyes. Doctors believed that he would definitely have brain damage. They also predicted brain swelling, seizures and lung infections, but fortunately, their predictions never materialized.

"Right at an hour with absolutely no life in his body whatsoever," says Dr. Kent Sutterer, the doctor who was working in the ER the day that John was brought into SSM St. Joseph West Hospital. "A complete healing. He doesn't have any seizures. He doesn't have any neurologic deficits, all the things that we expect in these things. Nothing. He's completely the same boy that he was before." Dr. Sutterer had recognized John when he was brought into the ER because his daughter was in John's 8th grade class. -USA Today

Like Dennis Haysbert's character in the movie, it's true that the doctors didn't think John would survive the first night.

Did the community hold a vigil for John outside the hospital?

Not exactly. Pastor Jason did organize a vigil, which was attended by "around 350 people," but it was held at the church, not outside the hospital.

How long was it before John Smith was taken off the ventilator after drowning?

His condition continued to improve, and on the tenth day, he was removed from the ventilator and was able to breath on his own. He was talking about three hours after that. "I'm thinking to myself, 'They're wrong. They're wrong. He has more than brainstem function, because he is looking around the room and he knows who people are. You know, God is restoring everything back to this child,'" recalls his mother, Joyce.

John was released from the hospital on February 4th, 16 days after rescuer Tommy Shine pulled him up from the bottom of the icy lake. It's true that like in the Breakthrough movie, John walked out of the hospital under his own strength. -CBN

Joshua Rieger (top left) and Joshua Sander (bottom left) fell through the ice with John Smith (center). Joshua Rieger's sister, Jamie Rieger (right), called 911.

Did the doctors agree that John's recovery was a miracle?

Yes. Like in the movie, the doctors were in disbelief and called it a miracle. "She came on in here, walked in, sat down, and yelled out, 'Come Holy Spirit!' and said his name, and a few seconds later we had a heartbeat," recalls pediatrician Dr. Nancy Bauer. "It gave me goosebumps." Dr. Bauer said that she had never felt someone so cold in her life. -TODAY

Dr. Jeremy Garrett, who is portrayed by Dennis Haysbert in the movie, called John's recovery a "bonafide miracle." -NBC News

What became of John Smith and his family after his recovery?

Joyce wrote a book about her son John Smith's drowning and resurrection, titled The Impossible, which became the basis for the Breakthrough movie. As for John, he hopes to one day become a pastor.

Joyce Smith is pictured with her son John, who survived after drowning and having no pulse for approximately an hour. Even John's doctors have called his recovery a miracle. He suffered no lasting effects from the accident.

Is there a medical explanation for John's survival and recovery?

"The only factors medically that were really in John's favor is that this was a cold-water drowning," said Dr. Jeremy Garrett (portrayed by Dennis Haysbert in the movie). He said that lowering the body temperature can preserve brain function, but that it "really shouldn't have worked in John's case." This is because the lake water was only 40 degrees and John's body temperature only dropped to 88 degrees, which isn't cold enough to adequately protect the brain.

"Usually you'd like it to be colder and you'd like the victim to be smaller actually," said Dr. Garrett, "because what you really need to have happen is for the brain to get cold before the blood flow stops to the brain. So, for John's brain to have gotten cold to be protected from the lack of blood flow and the lack of oxygen really is a miracle in itself, if that did anything here."

Does John Smith regret what happened?

"I see three 14-year-old boys who were being dumb on the ice and that fell through, and that the Lord saved us," says John. "And really he used it in his way to save other people, not just the three of us." -USA Today

Actor Marcel Ruiz (left) and the real John Smith (right) are pictured in the months prior to the movie's release in 2019.

John and Joyce Smith Interviews & Related Videos

Dive deeper into the true story behind Breakthrough by watching an interview with mother and son Joyce and John Smith. Then check out a demonstration of how to get out of the water after falling through the ice.