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Journalism Graduate Student Saves the Lives of Three from Deadly Rip Currents

    • Josh Meltzer
    • Josh Meltzer

Josh Meltzer’s quick actions and calm under pressure saved three people from drowning in Lake Superior on July 2. Meltzer, 38, a graduate student in the University of Miami School of Communication’s Multimedia Journalism program, helped rescue a woman, a pre-teen girl, and a teenager from rip currents. The three were swimming at Park Point located along Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn.

“The more I heard the story, the more I kept double-checking to make sure I heard it right,” Duluth police Sgt. David Greeman said of the rescue efforts of Meltzer and Robert Pokorney of Duluth. “I think the victims were fortunate that people were willing to risk their lives to save them. It probably prevented a tragedy today.”

Greeman said that he checked Meltzer’s chest to see if he had a big red Superman “S” there.

“He doesn’t, but he’s a very impressive young man, and Pokorney, too,” the officer said.

Meltzer was on the beach with his family about 11 a.m., just off the 1200 block of Minnesota Avenue when he saw a teenager who was sunbathing suddenly bolt up and sprint toward Lake Superior.

That teenager, who police identified as 18-year-old Lauren Timm of Blaine, Minn., had apparently seen Erica Gagnon and a young girl in distress, swam in to help, but was also overcome by the rip current. She yelled for help.

Meltzer said the wind and waves made it hard to hear, but he could tell all three were in trouble and the good Samaritan went after them.

“The [teen] was having trouble swimming,” he said. “She couldn’t make it out there. We were basically in the rip current. I grabbed her and brought her back and immediately turned around and went back out. There was an adult and a 10- to 12-year-old girl. The girl was going under. She didn’t have the strength to stay above water and whenever a wave came she just went under.”

Meltzer, 6 foot 1, 175 pounds, said he couldn’t take both Gagnon and the girl back at the same time and there was no way they were bringing themselves back. When he reached for one they both tried to jump on him, a classic response of a drowning person. He talked to Gagnon about trying to relax and float.

“I grabbed the girl because she was in much worse shape and she was close to me,” he said. “I told the woman to just lay on her back and float. Some people have trouble floating and can’t relax. They’re beyond the point where they can follow instructions. These two were listening and both laid on their back. That’s what saved the adult — she was able to wait.”

Gary Gagnon said his wife told him how reassuring her rescuer was. “She said he kept saying, ‘It’s all right. It’s all right.’ The only thing she remembers is that he was beyond positive,” he said.

Pokorney, 34, of Duluth, showed up as Meltzer was bringing the girl in and he went after Gagnon. He brought her most of the way in until Meltzer came back out and provided a floatation device to put on the woman.

“The rip today was unusual,” said Pokorney, who’s a surfer and knows the beach well. “It was much stronger than I’ve seen in a long time. She (Gagnon) was really exhausted. She was under water and above water. She was hanging on.”

Duluth police and firefighters and St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies were on the scene when the last of the three people was brought ashore. Gagnon was the only person who required an ambulance. She was treated and released from the hospital.

“This is Lake Superior. We can’t fence it off. This is not the first time this has happened,” said St. Louis County Undersheriff David Phillips. “People greatly underestimate what billions of gallons of moving water can do. Go there to have a fun time, but wow, please, please use caution. Please do not underestimate this is one of the world’s largest freshwater bodies. Please do not underestimate its power.”

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) is presenting Meltzer with its Humanitarian Award for his heroic actions. Meltzer was previously a photographer at The Roanoke Times and the Duluth News Tribune.

“Whenever someone steps-up and makes a difference they are honored by their community, whether it be the one in which the live or a wider one in which they work. Josh has been honored often for his work as a visual journalist, and now is the time to honor his humanity," said NPPA president Sean D. Elliot.

*Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Duluth News Tribune and has been supplemented. To read the original story, click here.

- July 2, 2012

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