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2005 Surf Festival Dinner Honorees



2005 Medal of Valor Honorees


Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Joel Gitelson 


At 4:00 a.m. on February 12, 2005, the United States Coast Guard requested assistance from Baywatch Isthmus.  With what can only be termed a tremendous vote of confidence for the abilities of the Los Angeles County Lifeguards, they asked for the Baywatch to respond outside their normal response area to Santa Barbara Island where a 29-foot power vessel with 3 persons on board had gone aground.  Winds were near gale force.  Visibility was zero and seas were running 6 to 8 feet.  The conditions were so bad that it was uncertain if the 32-foot Baywatch could get to the call safely.  The Coast Guard put the Baywatch on a call in schedule so as to give the Coast Guard a place to begin searching if the Baywatch was lost to the heavy seas while enroute to Santa Barbara Island.


After an hour and fifteen minutes, Captain Lance Dempsey and Joel Gitelson arrived on scene.  It was pitch black, the wind was roaring, the ocean filled with seaweed and sea lions, and the waves were crashing against the rocks.  A rescue swimmer (Jodi Larson) from the L. A. Coast Guard station was on the boat, which was on the rocks.  In these extremely hazardous conditions Joel Gitelson began his swim to shore.  Lance could not keep visual contact with Joel due to the size of the surf.  With incredible courage, commitment, determination and skill he made it to the shore and to the boat where he was able to assess the state of the victims.  At that point, another Coast Guard helicopter from San Diego arrived on the scene and dropped a second rescue swimmer into the water.  Working together, they were able to raise each victim to the helicopter.  After being hoisted up the helicopter himself, Joel was dropped off near Baywatch Isthmus and he and Lance began their hour and a half journey back to Catalina Island.


All three victims were transported to the hospital for treatment of hypothermia and knee trauma.  All recovered.



Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Matt Lutton


At 2:00 a.m. on April 28, 2005, Matt Lutton was awakened by a freak storm pounding Catalina Island.  The rain and the wind were intense.  Matt was so concerned he left his house to check on the Baywatch and then decided to stay awake and listen for any distress calls.


At 2:30 a.m. a boater called for help.  His 28-foot power vessel moored near the entrance to Cat Harbor on the windward side of the Isthmus had snapped its mooring lines and was heading for the rocks.  Matt called Lance Dempsey and knowing they had precious little time, they chose to drive to the dingy dock at Cat Harbor and use the harbor patrol skiff to get to the boat and get everyone aboard.


When they arrived on scene, they found the boat on the rocks and three men on shore.  Lance dove off the boat and swam to shore in order to assess the victims.  Upon reaching the shore, he determined that bringing them out through the surf would not be advisable.  One patient had just undergone cardiac bypass surgery and two of the men were in there 70’s.


It was up to Matt to find a way to get the victims to safety.  He returned to the dingy dock on the skiff and drove the truck to the base of the cliff.  He then grabbed a backpack loaded with rescue gear and started hiking along the cliff to where the victims were located.  It was 3:30 a.m., the seas and surf were battering the cliffs, winds were gusting up to 40 knots and the rocky cliff was nearly vertical.  He explained that the land route was too hazardous and that the only option was to swim the victims back out to the Harbor Patrol skiff.  Matt took the victim who was in greatest need out to the boat and back to the truck.  Lance followed with the other two victims later.  They were all treated for hypothermia and all made a complete recovery.



2005 Distinguished Service Honorees


Rescue Boat Captain Jim McDonald


On February 26 at 11:30 a.m. Baywatch Captain Jim McDonald and his deckhand, Joel Gitelson, received a call from a tour boat out of the Long Beach aquarium.  The fluke (tail) of a 30-foot gray whale was entangled in a gill net.  After Joel made an attempt to set the whale free, Jim put on SCUBA gear and made another attempt to free the animal.  As Jim swam under the tail, holding on to the line of the gill net and noticing that the line was cutting into the flesh of the tail, the whale spooked and dove and swam in a circle.  Jim held on to the rope and for a few minutes had the ride of his life.  As the whale slowed, he pulled himself along the rope back to the tail and wedged his knife under the line.  At that point, the whale flipped its tail and launched Jim out of the water.  As luck would have it, the knife caught the line and severed it as he was thrown clear.  A cheer erupted from the whale watching boats that were in the area as the whale gave a final slap of his fluke and swam free.



Ocean Lifeguard Dave Curry


Dave Curry, a loan officer when not lifeguarding and a coworker Steve Christain, had taken time in the afternoon on March 21 to catch a few waves at the Manhattan Beach Pier.  As he was getting ready to leave, he noticed the Manhattan Pier lifeguard grab his rescue can and sprint for the water.  Dave could not see the 2 heads moving quickly out to the end of the pier in a powerful rip current but knew with the rough conditions the pier guard would need backup.  The surf was running 6-8 feet with a powerful drift.  Dave and Steve jumped into the surf to lend a hand.  As it happened, the rip current pulled the pier guard through the pier and away from the victims.  Dave and his friend were able to negotiate the heavy surf and reach both swimmers prior to the pier guard and just prior to both swimmers going under.  Manhattan Beach Fire Paramedics treated both victims.  Dave and Steve’s intervention clearly averted a double drowning.



Ocean Lifeguard Tom Overmire


While attending his morning swim workout, Tom Overmire ad been watching a senior citizen swimming in the lane next to him at the El Segundo Plunge.  There were many swimmers that morning and the visibility was not good.  All of the sudden the man began to sink to the bottom of the pool.  He had suffered a seizure.  Tom quickly swam to the man at a depth of about 10-feet and brought him to the surface.  With one arm wrapped around a lane line, Tom began to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  With the help of other swimmers he got him to the deck and began CPR.  Within minutes the man began to recover.   The man survived, made a full recovery, and continues to swim in the morning at the El Segundo Plunge.  Tom’s alert and quick actions, along with the skills learned as a Commander with the Los Angeles City Fire Department for 30-years, and as a beach lifeguard for Los Angeles County for 39-years, saved a life.  In an entirely different way, Tom saves a life everyday.  His work with the Youth Services Division allows him to provide on a regular basis a “day at the beach” for children who suffer from blindness and other severe disabilities.



Ocean Lifeguard Specialist James (J.T.) Mehuron


J. T. and his wife were getting off the Catalina Express in Long Beach when a commotion on the dock caught J. T.’s eye.  An 80-year-old man had fallen into the water at the stern of the Express.  Dislocating his shoulder in the fall, the elderly man was unable to stay afloat in the water.  J. T., dressed in civilian clothing, quickly dove in and supported the victim.  Giving directions to the Express crew to call 911 for assistance, he stayed with the victim supporting him until a rigging system could be devised to remove him from the water.  The man would have drowned had it not been for J. T.’s quick actions.  The man was transported to a local hospital where he made a complete recovery. 



2005 Huanitarian Award


Captain Mickey Gallagher

Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Dan Douglas

Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Kirk Thomas

Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Simon Snyder

Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Erik Albertson

Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Olivier O'Connell


Just prior to Memorial Day weekend, 2005, Sean Branch, the son of Norm (a member of the Los Angeles County Fire Department) and Kit Branch went for a swim in the river near their home in Libby, Montana.  Sean underestimated the strong current and was swept downstream toward thunderous rapids where he disappeared.


Local search and rescue teams immediately went into action.  At the same time, a group of Los Angeles County Firefighters (7) and Lifeguards (6) volunteered their time, their expertise, their energy, and their money to assist with the search operation.


They traveled by plane, first to Seattle and then to Spokane.  In Spokane they rented vans and drove to Libby, Montana.  For the next 3-days, they worked 12-hour days tethered together in a dive operation conducted in a raging river.  Simultaneously they conducted a swift water operation using a PWC and IRB that were towed to Montana by members of the team.  Their expertise and tools were deeply appreciated by members of the local team.  They filmed a great deal of the operation and continue today to communicate with leaders of the local team on strategies and tactics.


We recognize the six Los Angeles County Lifeguards who volunteered to help with on of their own in a time of need.  The seven firefighters have already received recognition.  It should be pointed out that the entire operation was built on an incredible foundation of support and teamwork from many areas.  The Fire Department and the Lifeguards agreed to let the team go.  Dozens of firefighters and lifeguards covered shifts.  Alaska airlines waived all weight restrictions and provided open-ended tickets.  The Border Patrol met the team in Spokane and escorted them to Libby.  The church in Libby provided all the food and the community provided a house in which the team could sleep.  Los Angeles firefighters pitched in to pay the expenses the volunteers incurred.


Unfortunately, Sean’s body was not recovered during the operation.  He was found two weeks later, 65-miles downstream in Idaho.



2005 Lifetime Achievement Honoree


Harold Dunnigan


Hal Dunnigan began working as a lifeguard in 1948.  Although he initially worked a few weeks for the City of Santa Monica, he was offered a position he could not refuse with the Los Angeles City Lifeguards and remained with them until the City merged with Los Angeles County in 1975.  He has served as a beach lifeguard for 57 years and will be retiring from the Los Angeles County Fire Department on January 28, 2006.  He is the first seasonal lifeguard to receive this award.


As a lifeguard, Hal has done it all.  He organized the Los Angeles City Lifeguard Winter Games for over 10-years.  I might point out that this was prior to neoprene we suits and self-bailing dories.  He also organized the Ed Perry Regatta for 15-years and the LACOLA Blood Drive for 18-years.  He has rowed the Catalina to the mainland dory race and is a 4-time winner of the Santa Monica 1-Mile Dory Race.  One of the things of which he is most proud is that he served as an instructor for the Los Angeles City Lifeguard Training Academy.  He had a positive impact on 125 to 150 future lifeguards.


After Hal’s first four years as a lifeguard, he became a frogman with the Navy’s elite Underwater Demolition Team.  Although he left active duty in 1954, he remained in the Navy Reserves and served as an Intelligence Officer with Seal Team-1 from 1990 to 1991.  After his tour as a Navy frogman, Hal taught for a year and then took a 7-month, 1700-mile sailing adventure from Los Angeles through the Suez Canal to Istanbul, Turkey, and on to the French Riviera.  He returned to Los Angeles and sighed on as a permanent lifeguard with Los Angeles City.


After 3-years as a permanent lifeguard, he went to work for the Santa Monica Unified School District for 25-years where he taught classes in Math and Physical Education.  He also worked as a Counselor and retired as a Vice-Principal at John Adams Junior High.  After retiring from Santa Monica, he worked for 6-years for the Department of Beaches and Harbors.  At the age of 60 he climbed the east face of Mt. Whitney.


All the while, Hal Dunnigan worked as a recurrent lifeguard.  What a wonderful example of the dedicated, talented, and well-rounded individuals who work as recurrent lifeguards.

2005 Gitelson
2005 Lutton
2005 McDonald
2005 Curry
2005 Overmire
2005 Mehuron
2005 Gallagher
2005 Dunnigan
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