By Harry Keaney
Around Blarney, Co. Cork, Frank O’Brien is remembered by some as the 7-year-old who left for the U.S. 30 years ago. Last week in New York, O’Brien was hailed as a true American hero for his courageous rescue of a woman who almost drowned in the Hudson River two years ago.
During a recent ceremony at South Street Seaport, O’Brien, who now lives in Tarrytown, N.Y., was presented with the U.S. Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal. The award recognizes people who risk their lives to save others.
On Aug. 23, 1998, O’Brien was a passenger aboard the M/V Conservator, a water taxi, on a trip from Rockland to Tarrytown. Off the Nyack shore, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the boat began taking water and eventually capsized, throwing all 29 passengers into the river, including O’Brien’s mother, Katherine, and his cousin from Ireland, Theo Hoare.
One passenger, Dr. Milton Salkind, 86, drowned when he was trapped under the boat.
"It was like a pontoon boat," O’Brien told the Echo. "It had netting in front and around it and a roof on top. It took on water in the front and everybody moved to the back. Then the engine went under and the whole thing flipped over."
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In the midst of the commotion, O’Brien called on his mother to get on his back. When it was clear to him the upturned boat wasn’t going to go down, he got her to hold onto its side, thus keeping her afloat.
Not everyone, however, was out from beneath the vessel.
"There were people trapped underneath," O’Brien recalled. After his mother felt someone at her feet, O’Brien, a certified scuba diver, dived about five feet into the water. On his third dive, he located Helen Gurvitch of Nyack, who was unconscious and trapped in netting.
"At great risk to his own life, O’Brien untangled her from the netting, swam with her farther below the surface to clear the railing [of the upturned boat] and brought her to the surface," according to the Coast Guard.
He then helped keep her afloat until help arrived. Unfortunately, O’Brien never spotted Dr. Salkind. Visibility in the water had been less than two feet.
"I think we often use the word hero these days a little cavalierly," said Admiral James Moy, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, who presented the medal. "Frank O’Brien truly is one of America’s heroes."
O’Brien was born in the U.S. but moved with his parents, Kathleen and Frank, to their native Blarney when he was just 6 months old. He was in first class in national school in Ireland when the family returned to the U.S.
He now works as a project manager at Dreyfus Corporation’s systems department in Manhattan.