Sarah Thalhammer had a special guest at her North Babylon High School graduation ceremony on Saturday: the man who saved her life.
Fifth Precinct Officer Matthew DeMatteo, in his dress uniform and armed with a bouquet of flowers, stood by crowded bleachers and watched Thalhammer walk across the school’s football field to receive her diploma, an individual accomplishment she never would have made if he hadn’t jumped into the icy Great South Bay in Sayville to pull her out on Jan. 17, 2011.
When the two reunited, DeMatteo gave her the flowers and congratulated her on the big day. Thalhammer said it was good to see him, and the pair hugged each other tight before posing for a string of photos.
“She’s going off to college and she’s going to do great things,” DeMatteo said. “I’m very, very proud of her.”
The officer remembers the 911 call like it was yesterday. A 72-pound, 11-year-old girl had been dragged by a neighbor’s poodle mix that she was walking onto the frozen bay, where the thin ice underneath them gave way about 50 yards off shore.
“I saw just a tiny head sticking out of the ice and I said, ‘Oh my God,’ ” DeMatteo recounted.
Crawling on the ice, he pulled her out. Face down on the ice, Sarah did not move when DeMatteo told her to “roll over.” “I can’t,” she told him. “I’m like frozen.”
As he carried her to shore, the ice cracked again, but Chris Gonzales, then first assistant chief of Sayville Community Ambulance, threw them a line and pulled both of them onto the shore. The dog, Ace Ventura, was also saved.
“It’s one of the things I will remember for my entire life,” DeMatteo said.
Thalhammer’s mother, Michaela, refers to that day as her daughter’s second birthday.
“If someone had come later, she probably would have been floating underneath the ice,” she said.
Since the rescue, Thalhammer’s mother has called the officer on his birthday each year and checks up on him now and then. In one of those calls two months ago, she invited DeMatteo to her daughter’s graduation — it floored him because in his mind, Sarah was still 11.
“Matthew is extended family and that will always be. And I’m grateful that he’s still here,” Michaela said.
The rescue drew media attention and resulted in several awards for the officer, including Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
DeMatteo, who graduated from Sayville High School in 2001, still patrols the Fifth Precinct, but he’s had his own milestones, including a marriage and his first child on the way.
On Saturday, he made sure to grab a photo of himself and Sarah, a record of the reunion.
“That was truly an incident that could have gone very, very bad and it had a Disney ending,” he said. “Everybody was fine, nobody was hurt and she’s now living a very successful life.”