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Fishing friends honored for dramatic rescue

Two Florida anglers receive Carnegie Medals for saving a badly injured man run over by his own boat

Two friends who set out from Key Largo, Fla., on a fishing trip for permit might not have gotten a bite, but it was an outing they’ll never forget. Fishing guide James Koch, 40, and Jeffrey Bass, 42, saved fellow boater Norberto Martinez in Angel Fish Creek that September day, and the two Florida men were awarded the Carnegie Medal for their actions.

Jeffrey Bass (left) and James Koch had to avoid Martinez's unmanned boat, which was circling around the injured man.

“It was haunting, humbling, heartwarming and bittersweet in equal measures because of the gravity of the accident. It’s many happy endings and due to the richness of the history that surrounds the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission,” says Bass, a Miami attorney.

On Sept. 29, 2007, Koch and Bass left Ocean Reef marina in Key Largo at 1:30 p.m. for a day of fishing on Koch’s 17-foot Maverick flats boat, powered by a 90-hp Yamaha 4-stroke. About a mile-and-a-half out, the friends say they saw what turned out to be an 18-foot Robalo center console with a 135-hp Mercury circling erratically.

“We had a ripping tide,” says Bass. “We saw this boat doing doughnuts, and it didn’t look right. It looked out of balance and off.”

The men were about a half-mile away, so they throttled up and made their way to the scene, where they discovered that the boat was unmanned. “This boat was going around in a circle at a good clip. I’d say about 20 knots,” says Bass. “It was just whipping around. Then, in the center of the circle, there was a man.” It was Martinez, and he was “face down with his back cut open.” He was not wearing a life jacket.

A second person was in the water, wearing a life jacket and clinging to a channel marker outside of the boat’s dangerous circle. Martinez, in an e-mail to Soundings translated by his daughter, Liane Martinez, says he and his friend Santos Duarte were out fishing when they hit a marker.

“Currents, in combination with the wind, [gave us] very little time to avoid the marker after noticing it,” says Martinez, who says he’s had his Florida boater I.D. card for more than 15 years and owns a roofing company. Martinez was ejected from the boat and run over, losing consciousness and his back lacerated by the propeller.

“We thought about calling the Coast Guard on our cell phone, but I thought they wouldn’t get there in time,” says Bass. “I remember James [the guide] saying to me, ‘Your safety is my priority.’ Then I said, ‘Well then his safety is my No. 1 priority.’ ”

Bass and Koch had both fished for shark in the area and knew they had to get Martinez out of the water. Bass told Koch to keep his eyes on the unmanned boat as they entered the circle it was making.

“The nice thing about flats boats is they have no sides on them, so I was able to lay down off the bow and get him in there without having to jump in,” says Bass. “I reached in and heaved him up by the belt. It was probably the most physically demanding thing I ever did.”

Bass says Martinez’s face was ghost-white with eyes wide open and black lips. “There was no sign of life at first,” he says. “We called the paramedics, screaming at them to get a life flight to the marina while we made our way back.”

Bass held Martinez while Koch raced back to shore at 35 knots. “It all just happened really quickly,” says Koch. “I’m just glad we were there to help.”

Bass tilted Martinez’s body to the side and began massaging his chest. When Martinez vomited, “I figured that was a good sign,” says Bass.

When they arrived at the docks, paramedics were ready with a stretcher. “Time really stood still,” says Bass. “I remember the paramedics handed me a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and told me to take a shower in it. Then the helicopter landed and took [Martinez] away.” Another fishing boat picked up Duarte and brought him safely to shore.

Martinez was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, where he was treated for 10 lacerations on his back, all of which missed vital organs. “I don’t remember the rescue. I was unconscious,” Martinez says in his e-mail. “You realize how fragile life is and how amazing it is to have been saved by a total stranger who gave me my life back.”

The Coast Guard, contacted by another boat on scene, disabled Martinez’s Robalo and arranged for the marine patrol to bring it back to the marina. “We saw the boat getting towed in once we were on shore,” says Koch.

The Robalo sustained damage to the console and port side, which has been repaired, according to Martinez, who has since sold the boat.

Bass and Koch went back out but were too shaken to fish. “I will be haunted by those visions my whole life,” says Bass. “I was having flashbacks for a while after it happened.”

The three men have stayed in contact with one another since the incident. In fact, Martinez and his family were present when Koch and Bass received their Carnegie medals March 17 at the Ocean Reef Cultural Center in North Key Largo.

“It was very emotional to see these two heroes in front of me, the two men that risked their lives to save mine,” says Martinez. “I was extremely glad to see they got the recognition they very much deserve. Jeff Bass and James Koch did the most magnificent and admirable thing that a human can do — to save a life while risking their own.”

Bass says receiving the award is a tremendous honor and something to celebrate quietly and somberly. “Many people receive this award posthumously,” says Bass. “It is a haunting honor to be part of this living legacy, where many other medal recipients lost their lives trying to save somebody who is a total stranger. But at the same time it’s very life-affirming and transcendent — in that little window that stands outside of time, all else is subordinate to the next breath you think the guy is going to take.”

Acts of heroism

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission is a private foundation established in 1904 by businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to “recognize persons who perform acts of heroism in civilian life in the United States and Canada.”

To date, more than 9,000 Carnegie Medals have been awarded, selected by a 21-member commission from more than 80,000 nominees. Twenty percent of the recipients die performing acts of bravery, and the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission provides financial assistance for their dependants, as well as for those who are disabled when helping others.

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This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.