Some died saving lives; this Carnegie Hero lived

By STEVEN LEMONGELLO Staff Writer, 609-272-7275
Published: Friday, April 11, 2008

Michael Schreiber pose with his Carnegie Hero Award at his home in Linwood Thursday, April 10, 2008. Schreiber save a drowning man two years ago.
Edward Lea

Sure, there are rescuers in this world who risk their own lives. But who rescues the rescuers?

Looking back, Michael H. Schreiber said he never really stopped to think before plunging into the Atlantic Ocean to save a drowning man - and two others who, not having grabbed any flotation devices, apparently thought things out even less than he did. But when he looked at a list of the other new recipients of the Carnegie Hero Fund's medal for heroism, it gave him cause to reflect.

"There are 21 other recipients," Schreiber said, "and five of them died. And two died helping drowning people. Of course, my wife looks at that and says, 'Oh my God.'"

It was Memorial Day weekend 2006, and Schreiber, who lives and practices law in Linwood, was staying at his house in Beach Haven when an ordinary day at the beach turned into a matter of life and death.
There was no lifeguard on duty and the water was a cool 58 degrees, so when a drowning man began screaming for help, one may have thought things looked bleak for him. But at least two and possibly three people immediately ran into the surf to help 26-year-old Gregory A. Steirer, drifting southward with the current and still wearing his sunglasses.

Schreiber, 50 at the time, had a bit of experience with rescues - starting at the age of 16, he had spent six summers on that very beach as a Beach Haven lifeguard.

"I'm not exaggerating when I say that over six years, I'd saved hundreds of people," Schreiber said. "Going into the water to save people, I've done that before. I wasn't afraid. I was concerned for the people who went into the water without a flotation device. ... I knew that was a bad sign."

Looking around for a surfboard proved fruitless, so he was forced to grab two plastic boogie boards before heading out into the water. Steirer and his rescuers were 150 feet from the beach, and as he got there, the situation only got worse, he said.

One of the rescuers, Carnegie Medal co-recipient Gachino Galante, of Rydal, Pa., began having an asthma attack. He said another medal co-recipient, Katie M. Corrado, of Lansdale, Pa., managed to swim to a nearby jetty - but not before she was injured by a wave crashing her into the rocks.

A police officer ran out to the jetty to help her - but back out in the water, Schreiber tried to make the best of a tricky situation.

"I was trying to swim out of the rip current," he said, "and was heading south because rips go eastward in the ocean. The original drowning person started panicking, saying, 'Let go, let go.' Eventually, he calmed down and the fellow with asthma caught his breath."

Buoyed by one of the boogie boards, Schreiber looped the leash of the other board around his ankle. After Steirer climbed on and Galante grabbed the leash, Schreiber renewed his efforts to escape the current.

Finally, lifeguard Teddy Johnson and two others on personal motorized watercraft reached the boogie board caravan, and all were safe at last.
"It was a happy ending," Schreiber said. The mother of (Galante) came over to thank me, and she must have given my name to the Carnegie Hero Fund."

The medal is accompanied by a $6,000 grant, some of which Schreiber said will be donated to rescue squads. Schreiber said he considers himself lucky, compared with the other new Carnegie Heroes who gave their lives.
Wisconsin school principal John A. Klang died after he was shot by an armed 15-year-old student who was trying to get into into his school in 2006; Norman Jeffery Ringseth, of Nevada, ran into a burning home in 2007; and Michael J. Carney, of Pennsylvania, died saving a man from being struck by a temper mill roll in a steel company plant in 2004.
But it was the deaths of Kenneth D. Gurnon and Timothy Michael Barry that affected Schreiber the most; they died doing exactly what Schreiber did, running into the ocean to save drowning people.
Gurnon, of Newport News, Va., died attempting to save an 11-year-old off Narragansett, R.I., in 2006, while Barry, of Ventura, Calif., died helping to save a 4-year-old from drowning off Ventura later that year.
"I surf all the time, I grew up on the beach," Schreiber said. "I didn't think about it that much."
After seeing the word "deceased" next to so many other names on the list, he said, "I guess I think about it more in retrospect."
To e-mail Steven Lemongello at The Press: [email protected]