Eleven-year-old Sarah Thalhammer's desperate cries for help and the quick response of a Suffolk police officer saved the girl Monday after a thin layer of ice gave way and dumped her into the frigid waters of the Great South Bay.
Struggling to keep her head above 4 feet of water, Sarah shouted for assistance after Ace Ventura, the poodle-Maltese mix she was walking for a neighbor, dragged her onto the ice. The dog was also rescued.
"I fell through and I was screaming," Sarah said, hours after Officer Matthew DeMatteo rescued her from the icy water near her Sayville home. "I couldn't get out. It was very cold."
DeMatteo, of the Fifth Precinct, was responding to a 911 call by a neighbor who heard the girl in distress. He crawled onto the treacherous ice surface with an inflatable ring and grabbed the little girl, who was in a panic. The ice gave away again and DeMatteo and the sixth-grader at Sayville Middle School were briefly back in the water.
Chris Gonzales, first assistant chief of Sayville Community Ambulance, threw them a line and pulled both of them onto the shore.
DeMatteo, who sat next to Sarah during a news conference at Stony Brook University Medical Center after their ordeal, downplayed his efforts.
"Thank God I was able to make it out to her and get her out in one swoop," he said. "Honestly, it's doing my job. You see someone in distress, you need to help them."
Sayville firefighter Chuck Hartman, 21, pulled the dog off the ice once Sarah and DeMatteo were safe.
No one suffered serious injuries in the accident.
At the hospital, wrapped in a gray blanket and sitting in a wheelchair like DeMatteo, Sarah said she felt fine, but "my hands feel tingly."
Police and rescue workers said the accident began shortly after noon as Sarah left her home to walk Ace Ventura, which she had been watching in her home as a favor for a neighbor.
Ace, who weighs roughly 15 pounds, tugged ahead of her and pulled the 72-pound girl onto the ice about 50 yards off shore. The surface caved in shortly before 1 p.m. near Candee Avenue, behind a South Bay apartment complex, police said.
Sarah cried out, the frigid waters up to her neck, officials said.
"I didn't think the dog had such strength to pull her on the ice and almost kill her," said Michaela Thalhammer, Sarah's mother.
"She said she was going to be out for just 10 minutes to walk the dog," Sarah's brother Philip Thalhammer, 17, said. "I was waiting for her to return - and I didn't think anything like this could happen. It was really scary."
With John Valenti