On June 7, 2014, Madison resident Tony DellaMonica, Jr., a veterinarian and partner at Guilford Veterinary Hospital, was supposed to take a relaxing fishing trip in Long Island Sound with his cousin Richard Williams. It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, they found themselves saving two men from a 40-foot clam boat that was on fire.
Tony says, “My cousin lives down on the shoreline in Stratford and he has a small boat. He invited me down to fish, nothing that intense. So we were out probably a mile or so offshore and just puttering around. There were a few small clam boats in the area. One was in the vicinity, and I happened to look over and I did one of those [double-takes], ‘That looked like a flame.’
“I looked at this other boat to the left of us, and I saw the guy on that boat look, and I looked back, and the flame was bigger. I said, ‘Dick, there’s a problem over there. There’s a fire.’ I looked back at the other boat, and that guy didn’t care. So I said, ‘We need to get over there,’ so we headed over there, and by then things just got pretty bad pretty quickly. Black smoke started billowing, and as we got probably 75 yards from the boat, we see three guys jump off the boat into the water. Dick’s piloting the boat, and I’m trying to keep an eye on these guys. I saw another recreational boat had come in, and one guy swam to that, but there were still two guys in the water. And we were the closest ones, we were like, ‘We gotta get in there and do something.’”
What happened next seems like something out of an action film.
“As we got in closer,” Tony says, “all these little explosions started happening, and debris starting flying through the air and hitting the water. So we got in closer, and we happened to have a rope. We tied the rope off and threw it, and we threw them a life preserver, the two guys left in the water.”
Tony, modest and reluctant to be the center of attention, says someone else deserves the praise.
“The captain, who was the older gentleman—I never said this to anybody—he was the real hero in my book, because we didn’t know he was burned at the time on his arms, but he actually stayed close to the younger fellow who was panicking, and they got to the rope. We’re really close to the boat, and there’s a lot of smoke and flames, there’s metal flying through the air, and then we had to back the guys away slow enough so that they could hang on to the rope, but as they’re starting to swing around, they have to keep away from our propeller. So it was kind of tense. You have to keep your composure and back away really slowly. You have to focus.”
Grace Under Fire
Tony credits his hard-won medical training with keeping him calm. After he earned a BS in animal sciences from Purdue University, he applied to veterinary school at a time when, he says, it was nearly impossible to gain admission.
“Having observed my future wife’s nursing education process,” he says, “the science of nursing appealed to me so I immediately pursued a second bachelor of science degree in nursing at the University of Bridgeport. I worked essentially full time as an orderly in Griffin Hospital during nursing school and still managed to assist an equine veterinarian with surgical cases on a voluntary basis.”
For three more years, while he was in nursing school, Tony continued to apply to veterinary school without success. By then, he had married and had children, so he put veterinary school aside to begin seven years of full-time nursing working in critical care areas including intensive care, coronary care, and a cardiac catheterization laboratory at Griffin and Bridgeport Hospitals.
“In 1989, I decided to attempt veterinary school admission once again and was admitted to Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine,” Tony says. “I continued to work as an RN during summer breaks from veterinary school until graduation in 1993. I spent about a year in mixed practice in Pennsylvania working primarily with dairy cows as well as companion animals—dogs, cats, and assorted other animals. This proved not to be the right fit for me and I came back to Connecticut finding my niche at the Guilford Veterinary Hospital, where I have happily remained since 1994.”
That day on the boat allowed Tony a chance to use his training that he never saw coming.
“It was, retrospectively, one of those moments where you don’t know if it’s the right place, right time, or wrong place right time...being calm is the key, which is kind of me. Well, it’s training, it’s my background, so to speak.
“I’m kind of a boring guy, but I’ve had an interesting life in a weird kind of way, you know? I’ve done lots of veterinary emergency work both at our practice and...at several veterinary emergency facilities in Connecticut.
“You kind of train yourself to become calm, because that’s the best thing you can do in an emergency. Fortunately, it helped me because I didn’t panic in that situation. You have to think in emergencies, train yourself to breathe, and think, ‘What can I do that’s going to help the situation?’ People always say, ‘I just do what comes natural in a situation like that.’ It doesn’t—you have to care about people, and I think my background shows I care.
“I’ve been at Guilford Veterinary Hospital now since 1994, and the reason I stayed is it’s the most caring group of doctors I’ve ever been associated with. We lose sleep over cases. Some people say, ‘They’re only animals.’ We lose sleep over those cases. We really do.”
As Tony and Richard pulled the two men away from their burning boat, one of the men’s sister boats had arrived. The captain swam to it while Tony and Richard brought the younger man into their boat.
“He wasn’t injured, thank goodness, but he was in shock. He really was,” Tony says. “So we got him in and transported him to shore, and by then an ambulance had arrived because I had called 911 from the boat. We turned the young man over to the police and the EMTs, and they transported him to the hospital. I never even knew his name. His name was never in the paper. I think there was a little article about the captain.”
Safe at Home
Tony and his wife, Debra, an RN, have been married since 1979.
“We lived on the same street, but we didn’t know each other, so I married the girl next door, so to speak,” Tony says.
Their son Daniel and daughter Dana, who are in their early 30s, “both, coincidentally, happen to live in Las Vegas at the moment—purely by happenstance,” Tony says. “Dana teaches music theater, and Daniel works for Home Depot and he also has his own little computer business.”
Tony and Debra have a show kennel for their Schipperkes, a breed of Belgian barge dogs.
“My wife shows dogs, and that’s her kennel. We have five show dogs at the moment. We might be the only people in the state that actually actively raise Schipperkes. We’ve had dogs win Best of Breed in Westminster.”
As for the award, Tony says he appreciates it, but wasn’t seeking praise.
“In my usual fashion, I just tried to fly under the radar, because that’s how I am.”
Alas, Tony’s bravery was not to go unrecognized—he is a recent Carnegie Medal award recipient.
“My cousin’s daughter outed us,” he says. “I didn’t think anything was going to come of it, and then several months later I got contacted. As you can see, the process takes a long time. They called me several times, both of us independently, and they asked us to submit our own written account of it, and then they called us again to clarify details, and I think their committee must have had to deliberate on it. There’s no formal award ceremony. They sent us a letter, and the medal apparently is being made.”
The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission is based in Pittsburgh and has awarded 9,845 medals to civilian heroes since industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie established the commission in 1904. Each of the awardees or their survivors will also receive a financial grant, according to www.carnegiehero.org, which states that $38 million has been given in one-time grants, scholarship aid, death benefits, and continuing assistance in the past 112 years.
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