"She was screaming as loud as she could, which wasn't very loud, 'Help me, I can't move.' I'll remember the exact words and how she said it for the rest of my life," says Officer Matthew DeMatteo, a three-year veteran of the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Police Department. On January 17 he rescued 11-year-old Sarah Thalhammer after she fell through thin ice covering Great South Bay near Long Island. For his actions, he has been named Officer of the Month for April 2011 by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Sarah had been walking a neighbor's 15-pound poodle-maltese mix named Ace Ventura when the dog ran onto the iced over bay and pulled the 72-pound girl with him. Sarah fell through the ice into the frigid water and began crying for help. A nearby neighbor heard her and called 911.
DeMatteo was familiar with the area and was first to respond. A group of concerned citizens guided him through three feet of recently fallen snow to the edge of the bay where the girl could be seen keeping her head above water about 50 yards from shore.
Preparing to rescue Sarah and protect himself should he fall in the water, the officer retrieved a life ring from his car and secured his duty belt in the trunk so it wouldn't weigh him down, either on the ice or in the water. He then walked along a small rock jetty to get closer to the girl.
"As soon as I walked out onto the ice, it began to crack, so I laid flat out on my stomach, life ring in one hand, and I waddled out like a seal on my stomach," remembers DeMatteo. "I had a life ring but not a rope, so if I had thrown it and missed, it would have been bad for both of us."
The officer inched across the ice this way until he reached Sarah. She was so cold and exhausted that her cries were little more than a whisper at this point. "She was in a perfect little hole, so she must have hit a soft spot and fallen straight through," he says. "You could just see her head poking through."
DeMatteo was able to grab the girl's large winter coat and pull her onto the ice, where she landed face down. He instructed her to roll over to provide herself an open airway, but she was so numbed by the cold water she literally could not move on her own. DeMatteo flipped her over and began slowly dragging her toward shore.
"I had her in one hand, and as I lay on my stomach I'd drag her a bit, then move myself a bit," says DeMatteo. "The whole time I had the life ring in my hand, so if we both fell through we'd be OK and we could wait for other people to rescue us."
About 20 feet from shore, a volunteer firefighter was able to throw DeMatteo a rope and pull him and Sarah along the ice. Then just a few feet from land, the ice gave way, plunging both into the icy water. Although freezing, DeMatteo realized he could touch bottom-the water came up to his chest-and he carried Sarah to shore and handed her off to emergency personnel. But he didn't go to the hospital himself yet.
Instead, DeMatteo turned around to retrieve the errant dog, who was still standing atop the ice. But the officer's movements merely frightened the dog and caused him to run further from shore. Emergency workers called to DeMatteo and were able to convince him to go to the hospital for evaluation, promising they would rescue the dog, which they did.
Officer DeMatteo suffered a severe asthma attack once his adrenaline rush subsided and the effects of the icy water and his exertion registered with his body. He was already at the hospital at that point and they were able to treat him and release him after 12 hours.
He now carries a rope in his car to use with the life ring should he ever need to rescue someone from water again. He recommends that every officer do the same so they can safely attempt rescues from natural bodies of water as well as backyard swimming pools. He's thankful for the water training he received in the academy, and he's glad he was able to help Sarah Thalhammer when he was needed.
It's estimated that the 11-year-old had been in the water for 10 minutes, and it only takes 15 to 17 minutes for full paralysis to set in due to hypothermia, causing a person to sink into the water and drown. She has made a full recovery.
"It's more attention than I'm used to, but it doesn't matter," says DeMatteo. "The long and the short of it is, it had a happy ending when it could've gone much, much worse."