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Waterford man awarded Carnegie Medal for heroism

Waterford — Michael Dunn said he didn’t exactly react right away when he discovered a woman drowning last summer in Southold, N.Y.

It took him “one second,” then he was off, jumping in the water and calling on his experience in lifeguard training as well as whitewater paddling to try and save the drowning woman.

Dunn, a 61-year-old Waterford resident and real estate investor, was in Southold on vacation on Aug. 2, 2019, when he came upon Lisa J. Margaritis, a 49-year-old woman who had fallen from her paddleboard under a bridge. He was out on a jog when he heard a small, almost indiscernible call for help from a woman standing atop the bridge. Margaritis was below, caught in a riptide. Dunn fought to bring Margaritis to shore, but she was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital after the fact.

On Monday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., awarded Dunn the national Carnegie Medal for extraordinary heroism, during a ceremony at Harkness Memorial State Park.

“Michael is receiving this award because he put his own life in danger to save another,” Blumenthal said. “He saw someone struggling to survive a very dangerous current, and he literally braved that current, not knowing how strong it was.”

Blumenthal went on to highlight Dunn’s willingness to potentially sacrifice his own life to save another.

A group of Dunn's family and friends gathered near a podium in the grassy area close by the Harkness parking lot. Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule introduced Blumenthal, noting his pride that a Waterford resident should receive the prestigious award.

Dunn was one of 15 people chosen as Carnegie Medalists this year. According to the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission website, “The Carnegie Medal is given throughout the U.S. and Canada to those who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the lives of others.”

Blumenthal, who said this kind of event is the his favorite part of being a senator, thanked first responders for what they do daily in his remarks. Dunn did the same: He specifically mentioned health care providers who, in working through the COVID-19 pandemic, risk their health each day.

The Aug. 2, 2019, incident

Margaritis’s board snagged on a bridge piling, and she fell into the water but remained attached to the board via a tether. She was floating face down when Dunn managed to reach her. At first, though, his efforts at getting to her were fruitless.

He initially tried to jump toward her but, due to the powerful current, was promptly washed 50 feet downstream.

“This is where the whitewater experience comes in,” Dunn said. “In a fast river current like that, it goes down the middle, but if there’s obstruction, like a bridge or a rock, the current curls around in an eddy and flows upstream on the edge. I realized I couldn’t swim upstream faster than the current, so I went on the edge and the current took me up.”

Margaritis’s death made national news. A CNN story states that Margaritis was trying to save another woman “who was struggling in the strong current under a bridge in Hashamomuck Pond,” a detail Dunn also mentioned. He said the woman who asked for help atop the bridge exclaimed “No!” when he jumped in the water, as one woman had nearly drowned already and Margaritis was struggling.

Dunn dragged Margaritis to safety while holding her head above water. Once on land, Margaritis was unconscious and could not be revived by emergency responders.

Despite the Carnegie honor and widespread appreciation for his act of bravery, Dunn said he still regrets Margaritis’s death. It took him some time to overcome guilt.

“That day I was blaming myself for not knowing I should’ve jumped upstream the first time, but I later decided that I took the appropriate amount of risk,” Dunn said. “I blamed myself after the fact for my first jump — I jumped straight at her, not thinking that when I hit the water it was going to knock me downstream.”

Dunn’s friend Barbara Whitehouse was in Long Island with him and several other companions on Aug. 2. She recalled Dunn going for a run because he was training for the Niantic Triathlon.

“When we saw him afterward, he was pretty shaken up,” Whitehouse said. “He was wondering if he did things right, but your average person isn’t going to jump in that water.”

s.spinella@theday.com

 

 

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