1983 Surf Festival Dinner Honorees
1983 Medal of Valor Honoree
Ocean Lifeguard Tom Pani
Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Sam Bertolet
On February 13th, lifeguards Tom Pani and Sam Bertolet were both working as “deckhands” aboard Baywatch Santa Monica and Baywatch Del Rey. The weather that day was clear and sunny, but the winter surf was extremely large. As the two lifeguard boats motored out the main channel of Marina Del Rey harbor, they observed a huge set of waves with high walls of green water rising above the detached breakwater and breaking hundreds of yards off shore. It was at this point that both crews spotted a 25-foot sloop attempting to reach the channel entrance. Then they witnessed an 8-foot wall of white water hit the sloop and roll it over tossing two women into the sea.
Both Pani and Bertolet hit the 58-degree water from the Baywatch boats as they made a high speed run through the surf line which obstructed the south entrance to the harbor. The surf prevented the rescue boats from circling back to pick up the lifeguards and the women they were trying to save. When the lifeguards reached them, the two women were clinging to lifejackets. The lifejackets were not on the women. Lifeguards were told one woman couldn’t swim.
The lifeguards snapped the rescue tubes around the women and began to swim. They first tried to swim the victims outside the breakers to the two rescue boats fearing the consequences of the 15-foot surf inside. After ten minutes of trying to pull the victims out to the boats failed, Pani and Bertolet realized that their only option was to attempt to swim the victims in to the beach. Pani, who was not wearing a wetsuit, feared his non-swimming victim would go into hysteria if not brought to shore quickly.
While trying to swim the victims to shore both lifeguards and victims were all pounded by numerous large waves and walls of “white water”. Several times after being hit by the waves the victims and the lifeguards were separated by the shear power of the waves. At one point Bertolet became entangled in the line that runs from the tube to the lifeguard shoulder strap and he was being dragged under water. When he surfaced to catch his breath, the victim grabbed hold of him and he had to break her grip of him untangle the line and shoulder strap.
Eventually, with a combination of swimming from the lifeguards and the shoreward push from the waves, both lifeguards and both victims successfully made it safely to shore. The surf was so large that the Baywatch boat operators lost total sight of the lifeguards and victims and were unable to provide any backup support.
For their heroic rescue, Tom Pani and Sam Bertolet received the 1983 Medal of Valor.