County heroes win rare award

Jim Swett didn’t consider his safety when he smashed the window of a burning car with a crowbar and pulled an injured woman to safety.

Neither did Greg Meinhold, who commandeered a restaurant’s canoe and used a cookie sheet to paddle out to a fisherman drowning in Silver Lake.

On Monday, Gov. Chris Gregoire will present both men with the state’s Medal of Valor for their heroics in Snohomish County. They’ll be among the first four people to receive the award.

To nominate someone for the state Medal of Valor, go to the Secretary of State’s Web site at www.secstate. wa.gov and click on the “Medals of Merit &Valor” link. Anyone can nominate someone for the award.

“It’s truly an honor, it’s a little bit overwhelming,” said Meinhold, 44, of Everett. “I was in the wrong place at the right time, which happens to us in numerous occasions in our lives; sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad.”

Swett, 69, who lives in Sedro-Woolley, said he never expected such an honor.

“I’m kind of embarrassed, because I don’t know how to handle it,” he said. “I’m honored.”

People must risk their lives to even be considered for the award. Recipients can’t have any professional lifesaving experience, so police, firefighters and paramedics are not eligible.

The award isn’t about being foolhardy, said Secretary of State Sam Reed, whose office oversees the committee that chose the medal winners. It’s about having the courage to take action in the face of danger, he said.

“There clearly are people who have risked their lives to help others, who aren’t required to, and we need to recognize people like this,” Reed said. “Courage is a wonderful quality.”

Swett, a truck driver, was heading home on northbound I-5 on Dec. 15, 2004, when he saw several cars engulfed in flames near the Smokey Point offramp.

He immediately pulled over, grabbed a crowbar and a fire extinguisher, and charged toward the wreckage.

He smashed the window of a burning car and rescued an injured woman from the driver’s seat. Then he and others rushed to a crumpled Chevrolet Suburban and rescued two children from the back seat.

An off-duty firefighter tied a tow rope to the back of the Suburban and pulled it away from the flaming wreckage, saving two more people who were trapped inside. A woman in the passenger seat was already dead.

“I’ve thought about it quite often,” Swett said. The children he saved reminded him of his grandson, who died in a rollover accident on Whidbey Island about five years ago.

“It’s something I think I would have done whether I was 20 years old or 68 years old,” he said. “If it’s anything that happened in front of me or around me, I would have reacted the same way.”

Meinhold, a commercial real-estate broker, was driving to pick up his dry cleaning on Nov. 23, 2001, when he saw a dog alone in a canoe in the middle of Silver Lake.

He walked down to a dock and saw a fisherman thrashing in the water. He looked around for something buoyant but found nothing.

Then he remembered seeing canoes at a nearby restaurant. He drove there, burst through the back door and told employees he was taking a canoe and that he needed a paddle. When nobody could find one, he grabbed the only thing he could find – a heavy, 18- by 24-inch cookie sheet.

Meinhold, who as a Boy Scout taught canoe handling, paddled out to the stricken fisherman and pulled him into the canoe. The man had been in the water so long he didn’t have the strength to pull himself up.

Meinhold picked up the man’s dog from the other canoe, a black Labrador mix named Sara, and paddled back to shore, where firefighters were waiting.

“When you see someone in trouble or in peril, any decent human being is going to react to help that person, I would hope,” he said. “It’s pretty much what anyone would have done under the circumstances.”

Swett was near another accident on I-5 last week. He was getting his truck weighed north of Burlington when, about half-a-mile away, an 18-year-old woman lost control of her car, crossed the median and hit an oncoming car. Three people died. Washington State Patrol investigators believe the woman was driving at up to 90 mph.

Swett can’t stand it when people die needlessly, he said.

“I see people taking chances, just pulling in front of everybody,” he said. “They don’t think, they don’t use common sense.”

Swett and Meinhold gambled as well.

But the only lives they risked were their own.

Reporter Scott Pesznecker: 425-339-3436 or spesznecker@heraldnet.com.

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