It was a Thursday evening on July 9, 2015, and the Accokeek Swim Team was holding a Spirit Night at the Moyaone Community Pool. More than 70 people were gathered when Ana Spruill, an adult education instructional assistant with Charles County Public Schools, heard the sound of popping and cracking coming from a centuries old pin oak tree with branches canopying over the Moyaone Commons. She called out to warn everyone, who ran to safety as the massive branch was moments away from crashing down.
Ashley Gruwell, then 6, was sitting at the top of a slide and not moving.
“She was frozen, people were yelling at her. I think she was just frozen,” said John Hollyfield, a manufacturing teacher at North Point High School, who was among those at the Spirit Night. Hollyfield, the father of two daughters, took off running for Gruwell before the branch — later estimated to weigh between 6 to 10 tons — came down. “I said ‘We gotta go,’ grabbed her arm and we dashed off,” he said. “It was a gut reaction. I didn’t think, just ran.”
The branch fell — all 80 feet of it — onto the picnic and playground area where everyone had been gathered moments before. It splintered picnic tables, and crushed the slide.
For his actions, Hollyfield is one of 18 people who are being awarded the Carnegie Medal by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. The organization has recognized civilian heroism in the U.S. and Canada since 1904. The Carnegie Medal is given to people who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree to save or attempt to save the lives of others.
The medals are given quarterly, Jewels Phraner, outreach coordinator with the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, said. The Commission awards about 100 medals a year from the 1,000 nominations it receives annually. Nominees are civilians who knowingly and voluntarily risk his or her own life to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person, Phraner said. The act of heroism must occur in the U.S., Canada or in the waters of the two countries, and be brought to the attention of the Commission within two years of the act happening.
Since the program was established by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie more than 110 years ago, 89,000 people have been nominated with 9,971 medals awarded, Hollyfield said.
Among those is his great-grandfather James M. Hermansen of Widtsoe, Utah. Hermansen died in 1924 while saving a young boy from a runaway wagon and team of horses. Hermansen’s widow and children were aided financially by the fund, Hollyfield said. The boy, 12-year-old Derald Lay, lived.
It isn’t the first time in the Commission’s history that family members have received the medal for separate acts, but it doesn’t happen often. “It’s not unheard of, but it’s rare,” Phraner said.
During the past 113 years, the fund has given $39.4 million in one-time grants, scholarships, death benefits and continuing assistance, according to information provided by the Commission.
Of the 18 people honored by the Commission in September, four died attempting to save a life. Kevin D. Little Jr., 10, of Milwaukee died in a house fire attempting to rescue his 2-year-old cousin; Michael Lumahang of Ottawa, Ontario, drowned helping save a 12-year-old boy from drowning; Jamie Alan Hyatt of Wood Lake, Minn., died from the effects of asphyxia attempting to save his friend who was working in an oxygen-deficient tanker-trailer on a farm; and Bobby Lynn Arnold of Onalaska, Texas, drowned saving a 7-year-old girl. Other award recipients saved people from assaults, drowning, fires and car accidents.
Each Carnegie Medal takes two months to produce, Phraner said. On the reverse of each, is a brief description of the act that lead to the medal being awarded. If the person receiving the medal wishes, representatives of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission will present the award to the recipient. Hollyfield would like to receive his medal in the boardroom of the Charles County Board of Education, he said.
The pin oak on the grounds of Moyaone Commons was taken down; its base measuring 56 inches. Hollyfield, a woodworker in his spare time, has remnants of the tree in his yard, waiting for his next project.
While he will receive a grant from the fund, it was something else that might add up to more to Hollyfield. Gruwell and her family stopped by his house the day after the incident. They chatted for a while with Hollyfield and his wife, Lynn, before leaving. Later, he noticed a note left behind. “Dear Mr. Hollyfield,” it read, a child’s writing among stamped images of leaves. “Thank you for saving my life. Love, Ashley.”
“That just hit me right in the heart,” Hollyfield said.
Charles County Public Schools provides 26,500 students in grades prekindergarten through 12 with an academically challenging education. Located in Southern Maryland, Charles County Public Schools has 36 schools that offer a technologically advanced, progressive and high quality education that builds character, equips for leadership and prepares students for life, careers and higher education.
The Charles County public school system does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or disability in its programs, activities or employment practices. For inquiries, please contact Patricia Vaira, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator (students) or Marvin L. Jones, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 coordinator (employees/ adults), at Charles County Public Schools, Jesse L. Starkey Administration Building, P.O. Box 2770, La Plata, MD 20646; 301-932-6610/301-870-3814. For special accommodations call 301-934-7230 or TDD 1-800-735-2258 two weeks prior to the event.