N.J. officer makes daring save in rough water

Related: Taking the plunge: Water safety that could save your life
By Margaret F. Bonafide
The Asbury Park Press

LAVALLETTE, N.J. — When Patrolman Michael Monica arrived at the President Avenue beach, he was focused on one thing: A woman was caught in the throes of a rip current, and he was going to save her.

Monica, who was responding to a 911 call that came in about 7:15 p.m. Monday, grabbed his flotation torpedo from the car and met John Meeker of Howell on the beach. Meeker, 52, said his wife, Susan, 51, had gone into the water and was caught in the rip current, according to police. John Meeker had tried to help his wife to shore but the current pulled her away, he told the officer.

Monica, 25, who has been a police officer since 2004, last swam in an ocean with his new bride, Tia, during their Hawaiian honeymoon after a July 7 wedding.

Monica assessed the situation: Susan Meeker had been struggling for 15 minutes and was about 200 yards away.

"I went in because I knew if we were to wait for a rescue team to come out, we would have never seen her again," Monica said Tuesday.

Monica stripped off his police gear and uniform shirt and went in wearing pants, a T-shirt and socks. A fellow officer held his gun, belt and clothes.

With the torpedo, Monica started to swim toward Susan Meeker, keeping his eyes on her waving hands. She was a distance of two football fields away and kept floating further away. Monica could see her ability to signal was weakening.

The officer said his thoughts never wavered, and he was determined to save the woman's life.

"I just kept thinking just to get to the victim, "Get to her and keep her alive,' " Monica said. "It was a race against time. When I first entered the water, her hands were up in the air.

"You treat every victim like close family," Monica said. "It is a life out there. Nobody wants to drown out there. Obviously, she was caught out there in a rip current, and she had no swimming power left."

Halfway to her, Monica was met by an unexpected ally — surfer Chris Barbarito.

Barbarito, who was staying at a house on President Avenue, was eager to help. He dove into the water and gave the officer his surfboard in exchange for the torpedo. Monica paddled the rest of the distance to the victim.

Running into Barbarito was "encouraging," Monica said. The surfboard helped him get to her a lot quicker. Without it, Monica said, he is certain he would have failed.

"I told a lot of the guys: 30 seconds or more, I would never have seen her."

As he neared Susan Meeker, he tried to get her attention to give her hope, but the woman had lost her battle and was submerged. As the officer got to her, she had sunk about a foot and a half below the surface. She was wearing a white top, and that is what caught his eye, Monica said.

"The only way I found her was she had on a white T-shirt, and I grabbed her and put her arms on top of the board and kept her head afloat," Monica said.

Susan Meeker coughed water out of her lungs while the officer held her against the board.

"When I brought her up, water was coming out," Monica said. "I was tapping her on the back. She was coughing up a lot of water. I felt for her pulse — she was breathing but shallow. She was alive, and I was actually very happy to see that she was alive."

Special Officer Eric Denver swam out to help bring Susan Meeker in with the surfboard. Barbarito, Denver, Monica and Susan Meeker were met by members of the Lavallette Fire and Rescue Squad, and she was taken to the Community Medical Center in Toms River by Lavallette First Aid.

Susan Meeker said Tuesday night that she got home from the hospital about 3 in the morning.

"Both my own and my family's lives have been touched by the heroic efforts of my rescuers," she said. "We are truly blessed to have these people among our community."

At the end of his work day, Monica told his wife of the news.

"My wife, she was very proud. She knows my job could be dangerous," Monica said. "She is a little speechless."

Police Chief Colin Grant said it was a proud day for his department.

"Without a doubt it was a pretty heroic effort by Patrolman Monica and everyone involved. He showed total disregard for his own safety," the chief said. "I am definitely going to put him up for an award."

Copyright 2007 Asbury Park Press

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