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Boater Who Saved 4 Pins on a Medal

Heroism: Retired firefighter regrets only that he was unable to rescue two others aboard a sinking vessel.

January 31, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They gave Ronald May a medal for bravery Wednesday.

It was solid gold and presented by Vice Adm. Ernest R. Riutta, the U.S. Coast Guard's Pacific Area commander, in front of 50 officers standing at attention.

May's name was engraved on the back, along with a date: Oct. 23, 2000.

That night, under a moonless sky, May was heading back from Santa Catalina Island on his pleasure boat, the Mystic, when he picked up radio chatter about a boating accident at a mooring buoy 11/2 miles off El Segundo.

May is 58, trim and fit with brown eyes and gray hair. Retired from the Beverly Hills Fire Department after 28 years, he lives in Los Angeles.

He swung the Mystic around and scanned the sea for signs of the accident.

A mile ahead, he spotted the running lights of a 23-foot pleasure craft, the Charades, which was taking on water. Six panic-stricken passengers huddled in the ship's cabin.

"We're sinking!" they screamed. "We're sinking!"

The deck was just 6 inches above the water.

Suddenly, the stern of the boat sank, tossing four terrified passengers into the chilly water. All four managed to grab hold of ropes May and a friend who was with him, Richard Tracy, tossed their way. They were safely hauled onto the Mystic.

But two more--petrified with fear--were trapped inside the Charades' cabin: 8-year-old Donta Perry and his grandmother, Mildred Griffin, 66.

May grabbed a snorkel and fins and plunged fully clothed into oil-slickened, 60-degree water.

He found his way into the submerged cabin and managed to grab hold of Griffin. He pulled and pulled, but he couldn't get her out. The Charades was sinking fast.

May was forced to surface for air. He dove back into the boat's cabin that was cluttered with debris. No luck.

He surfaced once more and then dove a third time.

He ran out of breath, returned to his boat and fired off a flare. Griffin and the boy had been trapped for about 10 minutes when Harbor Patrol Deputies Mark Ballin and Max Doke arrived.

By then, only the tip of the Charades bobbed above the water.

Ballin tied the boat to his vessel, put on scuba gear and dove in. He found the boy and his grandmother, still wearing life jackets, pinned inside the flooded cabin.

The life jackets complicated the rescue, he recalled later, because they made it hard to pull them low enough to get them out and away from the cabinets.

Eventually, he freed the boy, then the woman.

On the surface, sheriff's deputies who had joined the rescue administered CPR to the boy and grandmother, both of whom were by then in full cardiac arrest. Their lungs were filled with water and both suffered from hypothermia.

Donta, a third-grader at Oak Street Elementary School in Inglewood, was taken to UCLA Medical Center. He died a few hours later.

Griffin, a subscription saleswoman for the Los Angeles Times who had been in a coma in the intensive-care unit at Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital, died three days later.

"I think about it a lot," May recalled Wednesday.

"I did my best. But it still bothers me that I couldn't save them."

May was flanked by his wife, Candy, and his mother, Sally, as a Coast Guard officer read aloud the rare citation for "extreme and heroic daring" on that October night.

"If not for [May's] selfless actions, the lives of all six passengers on board the Charades might have been lost," the citation said.

"Mr. May risked his own life in an attempt to save others. His unselfish actions and valiant service reflect the highest credit upon himself and are in keeping with the highest traditions of humanitarian service."

Only 600 other such medals have been awarded since the honor was established by Congress in 1874. They are reserved for people who risk their own lives while saving or attempting to save another from drowning, a shipwreck or other perils of the water.

The first recipients were three brothers who rescued two people on Lake Erie in 1875.

"I've been in the Coast Guard 34 years, and this is the second Gold Lifesaver Medal I've ever seen or awarded to anyone," Riutta told May. "I'm very proud to stand in your presence, sir."

"I don't feel that I did all that much," May said.

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