An instinct to save

Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi

Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas Ciarametaro pauses for a portrait, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, at Coast Guard Station Boston’s small boat pier. Ciarametaro was involved in a rescue while off duty during the summer of 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas Ciarametaro pauses for a portrait, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, at Coast Guard Station Boston’s small boat pier. Ciarametaro was involved in a rescue while off duty during the summer of 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi.

He dove deep fighting the current.

It was his third attempt to free the man entangled in the anchor line. Nearing black out and unable to reach bottom, he pushed to the surface, fighting the urge to take in a breath. Emerging from the depths he screamed, “Does anyone have a knife?”

For one group of Coast Guardsmen and their friends, a relaxing day off spent at the beach quickly turned into a battle to save a stranger’s life.

It was a typical off duty, summer weekend at Wingearsheek Beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts, noted Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas Ciarametaro, a boatswain’s mate at Station Boston.

Ciarametaro owns an 20-foot center console boat, and frequents the popular beach along with his friends from the station.

The beach, which runs along the bank the Annisquam River, is a popular spot for recreational boaters to anchor close to shore. Given the powerful currents flowing from the river, two anchors – one bow, one stern – are often the norm. Managing anchors here can be difficult, and some boaters resort to unorthodox measures.

“It’s not out of the ordinary to see someone swim their anchor out,” said Ciarametaro.

But on this August afternoon, given an unusual moon phase and wide tidal shift, the current was ripping.

Misjudging the strength of the current, a nearby boater entered the water carrying his anchor.

Not long after, he began to struggle.

Petty Officer 3rd Class John Hollerbach, a maritime enforcement specialist at Station Boston, and Fireman Matthew Achey, another member of Station Boston, were on Ciarametaro’s boat when a man nearby on shore called to them, asking for a life raft. The man explained his friend was in the water and needed help.

Petty Officer 3rd Class John Hollerbach pauses for a portrait, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, at Coast Guard Station Boston’s small boat pier. Hollerbach was involved in a rescue while off duty during the summer of 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi.

Petty Officer 3rd Class John Hollerbach pauses for a portrait, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, at Coast Guard Station Boston’s small boat pier. Hollerbach was involved in a rescue while off duty during the summer of 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi.

Hollerbach, Achey, and Ciarametaro jumped from the boat into the channel and swam to the man struggling to stay on the surface.

“As we swam over we could see this guy was being drawn down by something,” said Achey. “I tried to grab the guy under his arm and keep him above water, which was not working at first because it kept sucking us both down.”

Achey said Hollerbach dove and saw the anchor line wrapped around his leg.

Achey stayed on the surface trying to keep the man afloat as Ciarametaro and Hollerbach worked underwater to free the man’s leg.

Achey was admittedly the weakest swimmer of the three, but with a sturdy build he was strong and determined to help.

The man was pulled underwater four or five times, said Achey. Three of those times Achey went under with him trying to keep ahold and get a better grip.

“He was gasping every time,” said Achey.

Achey was growing exhausted but kept fighting to keep the man afloat. He was confident Ciarametaro and Hollerbach would figure out how to free him from the mess below.

Ciarametaro was a strong swimmer. He had passed the Navy’s first class swimmer test as a requirement for his previous unit.

“Achey was holding him up, and I was diving under trying to get the line unwrapped from his ankle,” said Ciarametaro. “I successfully got one wrap off, but it was wrapped twice.”

Each time the young man was pulled under, Ciarametaro would help push him back up.

“We were at the point of exhaustion, and the kid was sucking water and getting half breaths,” said Ciarametaro. “He was panicking pretty bad.”

Meanwhile, Hollerbach explored every option to free the panicking man. Failure meant the man would die. In the silence of the waters depth his mind raced trying to find the solution. He tried to unwrap the line from the man’s leg but the tension was too great. He tried to swim to the anchor to free it from the sea floor, but it was too deep and the current was too strong.

“I tried to grab the line itself and pull myself toward the anchor to see if I could get to the anchor and release it, and give the kid a break but it was real deep down there, “ said Hollerbach. “ I couldn’t get to it.”

Fireman Matthew Achey pauses for a portrait, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, at Coast Guard Station Boston’s small boat pier. Achey was involved in a rescue while off duty during the summer of 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi.

Fireman Matthew Achey pauses for a portrait, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, at Coast Guard Station Boston’s small boat pier. Achey was involved in a rescue while off duty during the summer of 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi.

The three Coast Guardsmen were exhausted, and time was running out. Hollerbach had an idea.

Hollarbach had been diving down and returning to the surface only for quick breaths and his body was craving oxygen. “I wanted to breathe in but I wasn’t at the surface yet. You know what I mean? I just needed air, and that’s when I came up and said ‘I need a knife.’”

So he screamed for one.

A nearby paddle boarder answered Hollerbach’s call, waving a knife at him. Hollerbach raced over to the paddle boarder and grabbed the knife. Taking a breath he dove down one last time to try and free the line from the man’s leg.

“I don’t know if the line was so tight or the knife was so sharp, but it felt like I just touched the line and it just parted,” said Hollerbach.

Achey, Ciarametaro and Hollerbach swam the man to shore. He had rope burns and bruising around his ankle. After coughing up salt water, the man declined any medical attention and quickly left with his friends. He didn’t even give his name.

Though they sought no recognition for their efforts, a man who witnessed the event decided to write to the Coast Guardsmens’ command, hoping they could be recognized for their actions, and bring the rescue to light.

The trio agrees the rescue was instinctual. They saw someone in trouble, in a dangerous situation, and they just went in together.

“I don’t consider us heroes,” said Ciarametaro. “I just think we did the right thing.”

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