After he’d lost the grip on his floating seat cushion and the hypothermia had set in, James Moore decided it was time to let go.
Not just of the tangled life jacket that wasn’t keeping him afloat. To let go of everything.
The 12-foot boat in which Moore and his son-in-law Steven Elliott had been trolling for shrimp last month had capsized under a freighter’s wake 20 minutes earlier in Commencement Bay.
Elliott, burdened by heavy boots and clothing, had pulled Moore 200 yards before he could no longer swim for both of them. He’d gone for shore to strip, then planned to come back for his father-in-law.
Time slowed, Elliott said. It felt like he’d been in the water for an hour. People on the shore, who had called 911 when they saw the men in the water, had to restrain him from going back in.
Moore, 56, was too far gone to make the last 120 feet to shore.
Then he saw Tacoma firefighter Matt Fleming, and held on.
“The kid was in his underwear, orange and white underwear, and had a rope around him,” Elliott said. “I swear, this guy was so quick, he ran across the top of the water like a gecko.”
Fleming had a life ring. When he reached Moore, he told him not to fight, as if that were still an option, to just lie on the ring.
Fleming held on, and firefighters pulled the rope.
Fleming risked his life in deep water cold enough to stop a strong heart, Elliott said.
“Oh man. He had the proper training, the personal valor and made all the right decisions,” Elliott said.
Fleming would not say that, does not say that. But he does wear it on his chest – that one word, “valor,” on a blue pin above his right breast pocket. On Tuesday, the Tacoma Fire Department awarded him the Medal of Valor, one of only 10 it has given since 2000.
Fleming, 26, is new to the department, one of 21 recruits hired in March 2011. He’d put in 12-hour days during training, mastered every piece of equipment, trained in every station and for every contingency.
Months after they were hired, the recruits learned the city had a multimillion-dollar hole in its budget and they might be let go.
A federal grant saved the jobs, for the time being.
Deputy Fire Chief Jolene Davis said Fleming is proving to be a winning fit for the department. He is good with people, fair at mechanics, and great at swimming.
From Lake Forest Park north of Seattle, he worked summers as a lifeguard and made the Shorecrest High School swim team. Before he studied communication at the University of Washington, he wanted to be a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.
On June 5, Fleming was working in Northeast Tacoma when the crew got a call about the men in the water.
Three minutes later, on the beach, he and his commander did a risk-benefit analysis.
The fireboat was on its way, but would be too late for Moore.
“We’ll risk a lot to save a lot,” Davis said. “If we think we can do it, we’re going to risk a lot to save this guy.”
Fleming said he could do it and was in the water 20 seconds after they got to the beach.
“I was happy it went smoothly,” he said later. “We spent a lot of time preparing and training, so, yeah, it felt good.”
It felt good, but not exactly brave.
Home in Gig Harbor, his wife, Sheena, asked how his day had been.
All he said was: “We had a water rescue. I pulled someone out of the water.”
“To me, it was not exceptional,” Fleming said in an interview this week. “That’s what we’re here to do.”
Elliott disagrees. His father-in-law recovered from hypothermia. The family is whole because Fleming put his life at risk in that cold Tacoma bay.
“That,” Elliott said, “was valor.”kathleen.merryman@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8677 blog.thenewstribune.com/street