A Coast Guardsman was on a walk on the waterfront in Des Moines last summer when a car went off a sea wall and plunged 50 feet into Puget Sound. The guardsman, Truman Skang of Palau, risked his own life by jumping into the 52-degree water and rescuing one the driver of the car. A woman and dog in the car didn't make it.
June 10, 2009, Excerpted from Seattle Times, by Lewis Kamb - On a cool evening in early summer last year, Truman Skang had been enjoying a lazy stroll with friends along the Des Moines waterfront on a rare day off from his Coast Guard job, when tragedy unfolded before his eyes.
Nearby, an elderly motorist mistaking the gas pedal for the brake stepped hard on his accelerator, and the car sped out of control. It plowed through a guardrail and hurtled some 50 feet off a sea wall into Puget Sound.
With the two occupants and a dog trapped inside the sinking car, dozens of bystanders looked on, frozen in horror. Meanwhile, Skang — with help from a few others at the Des Moines Marina that day — "just reacted," he said. "I just kind of went for it," said the wiry 30-year-old, an electrician's mate first class. "I really didn't have a chance to feel scared — till after it was all over."
Skang dove off a pier after the sinking car and ultimately pulled a 76-year-old man to safety from the cold waters before chill and fatigue overcame him. Though the man's friend, an 86-year-old woman, and her dog died in the accident, Skang's actions spared the man's life.
For Skang's act of courage on June 20, 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard today awarded him one of its highest and rarest honors: the Silver Lifesaving Citation.
"In my 33 years in the Coast Guard, I've only awarded two of these," Rear Adm. John Currier told a crowd of about 200 at Sector Seattle headquarters. "So, we do not give them up routinely."
Currier commands the Coast Guard's 13th District, which includes the West Coast.
While reading the citation aloud, Capt. Suzanne Engleberg, Seattle Sector commander, noted Skang "immediately jumped into the 52-degree water, risking hypothermia."
He also suffered a cut, requiring stitches to his elbow, while trying to remove a shattered windshield. Skang then managed to make his way to the driver's-side window of the sinking car and pull out the driver. He attempted several more dives but was unable to save the woman or dog.
Skang's "unselfish actions and valiant service, despite imminent personal danger, reflect great credit upon himself and are in keeping with the highest traditions of humanitarian service," Engelberg said.
On hand for the brief ceremony were Skang's parents, Katsushi and Hilde Skang, who traveled from the family's home in Palau, an island nation near the Philippines. It took the couple 24 hours and a five-leg flight to arrive for their first visit to Seattle, they said.
With Skang's fiancé, Mia Kuartei, translating for him, Skang's father — a champion competitive swimmer and renowned fisherman in Palau — said his son's actions were courageous but not unexpected. "I'm very proud he was able to do it."
Swimming is something that comes naturally to him and his countrymen, Skang said.
"The first thing you do back home is learn how to swim," he said. He added that he only wished he could've done more to help the car's occupants. "That wasn't the problem. It was the temperature of the water that was the problem that day."
The four others who helped Skang during his rescue efforts — all civilians — will also be honored by the Coast Guard during a forthcoming ceremony, said Lt. John Hanley, a spokesman.