When the 11-year-old girl tightly wound her arm around Evans Police Lt. Bradley DiMartino’s neck Thursday night offshore of Wendt Beach Park, the officer doubted they’d see the shore again.
“Thank God,” a pale and exhausted-looking DiMartino said Friday afternoon in a meeting with reporters at Evans Town Hall. “I don’t know why, but He chose to make us both live, because I really thought I was done. I really did.”
DiMartino emerged as a hero police officer for shedding his uniform and his gun belt and running into the tumultuous lake waters around 7 p.m., after spotting a head “bobbing out of the water in between the waves” about 100 yards offshore. It turned out to be the 11-year-old.
The girl’s mother, 51-year-old Mary E. Creighton of Hopkins Street in Buffalo, had attempted to rescue her daughter, who was caught in 5- to 6-foot waves, but Creighton drowned. Her body was recovered about an hour later further east in the lake near Sturgeon Point, authorities said. She was a registered nurse.
A 10-year-old friend who was swimming with Creighton’s daughter at the time they got into trouble managed to make it to shore safely on her own.
“I swim in that lake ... since I was 5 years old,” DiMartino said. “I can’t remember waves so powerful pounding down into the shore like that.”
DiMartino, 44, a 21-year veteran of the Evans Police Department and the father of an 11-year-old daughter, was reviewing paperwork at the start of his shift in the town’s municipal parking lot when the call came over the police radio of three swimmers in distress.
Shortly after arriving on scene, one of the swimmers was spotted through binoculars.
“I was gone,” DiMartino said. “I made a beeline towards this girl.”
DiMartino attacked the lake on a diagonal to intercept the girl, who was being carried by the current. But he underestimated the lake’s ferocity.
“I consider myself a fairly strong swimmer,” he said. “I felt like I’m just going to go get her and that’s it. I didn’t think anything of it. But when I got maybe within 20 yards of her, the waves were just, like, pounding me down into the floor of the lake. They were just coming over my head, and I’m 6 feet tall, and they were just pounding me.” After swallowing at least three large mouthfuls of water, DiMartino realized he was in trouble, too. He was on his “tiptoes” and being slammed by white-capped waves at three-to-five-second intervals.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it, but I knew I had to get to her. She was so close. I could hear her screaming,” he said. “I was either going to go down with her or I was going to get to her.”
That’s when the supporting cast – namely, Evans Police Officers Gregory Szarowicz and Jeff De Vinney, along with Phil Schott, a lieutenant in the Highland Hose Volunteer Fire Company – saved the lives of both DiMartino and the young girl, who has yet to be identified.
“I have nothing left in my tank, and she’s now pulling me down,” DiMartino said about finally getting ahold of the girl.
The girl had DiMartino in a near-choke hold.
“I don’t blame her for trying to grab me by the neck – she was hanging on for dear life,” he said.
“When you got into the waves and into the undertow there, I felt myself … my feet being pulled in. I felt myself being sucked like a vacuum at the same time,” DiMartino said. “It just took every ounce of energy out of me. I just had nothing left. I’m just speaking from what I remember.”
De Vinney was about 10 to 12 feet away from DiMartino at the time. DiMartino relayed the girl to De Vinney, who was able to get her to shore.
“Once I was able to give him the girl, I just dropped to my knees,” DiMartino said. “I had nothing.”
Did the girl say anything?
“She was saying ‘thank you’ a couple times,” De Vinney said. “She was throwing up quite a bit of water.”
Szarowicz and Schott got hold of the exhausted DiMartino and brought him safely to shore.
“When there is an officer and a child out in the water, there’s no option not to go,” De Vinney said. “You have to.”
The two girls were rushed to Women & Children’s Hospital and were reported to be OK on Friday.
Highland Hose Chief Robert Trask called the scene at the beach “very orderly” but noted communication was hampered at times because of gaps in radio transmissions near the lake.
He credited Schott’s contributions to the rescue. “He’s willing to help everybody at any time – your normal volunteer fireman,” Trask said.
Lake Erie’s waters were so rough Thursday evening that they capsized a fireboat from the Lake Erie Beach Volunteer Fire Company that went to assist in the rescue effort, sending three volunteer firefighters overboard. It also forced a pair of police boats to return to port.
A maintenance worker at the beach made an early attempt to reach the distressed swimmers before emergency personnel arrived but was rebuffed by the conditions.
“They wouldn’t stop, they were relentless,” DiMartino said of the waves. “It was just a constant pounding of water over your head.”
Friday’s conditions – gusty west winds – mirrored Thursday evening’s scene. Whitecaps were visible, and wave heights were running between three and four feet in the midafternoon and buffeting the shore.
Signs prohibiting swimming at Wendt Park Beach are posted at the entrance to the beach – and have been for a year or more, beachgoers who frequent the area said Friday afternoon. There were about a dozen people walking the beach, but no one was in the water.
“It’s really not a swimming beach,” said Evans Police Chief Ernest P. Masullo. “When the temperature hits the 80s and 90s, you’re not going to get people away from here. They come out of the city, and they come out in droves.”
Masullo said he expected his men to be at the front lines of Thursday’s rescue.
“This was just instinctual,” he said. “They’re human lives. You need to do something.”
DiMartino, a native of Angola and graduate of Lake Shore Central High School, is a married father of three. He is 44.
“He’s a very serious person, and he’s a hard worker,” Masullo said of DiMartino.
De Vinney, another officer Masullo considers a “hard worker … who takes his job seriously,” is a 33-year-old Lake View native who is single. He’s spent 10 years as a police officer and was first hired by Masullo five years ago in Evans as a part-time officer before being promoted to full time.
Szarowicz, the father of a young girl and boy, is an Eden native and is 33. He has served the Evans Police Department for seven years, including as a K-9 officer.
Masullo called Szarowicz an officer who’s “very level-headed,” does his job well and is “very good with the public.”
Thursday’s incident was not DiMartino’s first life-saving rescue. In 1997, he and Evans Police Lt. Douglas Czora rescued a person from a car that rolled over on Delamater Road and later burst into flames.
Like police officers often do, DiMartino downplayed any discussion of heroism.
“There was a young girl there that needed help. I didn’t think anything of it,” he said.
The toughest part of the whole ordeal was knowing Creighton lost her life trying to save her child.
“That’s the story, in my opinion,” DiMartino said. “I don’t think the story is us or anybody else. I think the story’s that woman. That’s the woman that’s the hero.”
Creighton’s death was the ninth drowning on Lake Erie this year and first along the New York State shoreline, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. There have been a total of 24 total drownings in the Great Lakes region in 2015.