ALTON, Ill. -- Next to the mighty Mississippi River, the U.S. Coast Guard bestowed its prestigious Gold Lifesaving Medal Friday on a man who saved five people from those treacherous waters.
Besides recipient Jarvise Shelton, representatives from the St. Louis office of the military branch also honored his late co-worker, Kyle R. Hardman, 55, of Barbourville, Ky., who drowned trying to save three adults and two children on June 12, 2012, south of Downtown St. Louis.
"It was an ultimate sacrifice that Kyle Hardman made," said Capt. Byron Black, sector commander of the Coast Guard's Upper Mississippi River Sector. "All of those involved in the rescue said they were just doing their jobs, but they demonstrated the best of humanity. The word 'hero' is used a lot these days, someone making a touchdown in football," but these are true heroes.
"There is no fairer duty than to help those in distress," Black said. "It is an absolute honor and privilege" to bestow the medal on the men.
"They are selfless humanitarians," he said. "The family would have perished without Kyle Hardman and Jarvise Shelton responding to the family's cries for help. They knew the risks."
The Coast Guard will send Hardman's medal to his family, who could not attend the ceremony. The rescued family also was not present.
The award presentation was held under bright blue skies with a slight breeze on the plaza between Melvin Price Locks and Dam 26 and the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton. A reception followed inside the museum.
The U.S. Congress established the Silver and Gold Lifesaving Medals in 1874 to honor those who rescued or tried to rescue someone from drowning, a shipwreck or other water perils.
It is one of the few awards presented to both members of the military and civilians, with the first awarded in 1878. It underwent three design changes over the years. The Coast Guard has issued the Gold Medal fewer than 700 times, making it one of the rarest medals that the U.S. military awards, Lt. Tim Marriott said.
"This is highly unusual," Lt. Colin Fogarty, public affairs officer for the St. Louis office of the Coast Guard, said before the ceremony. "It is one of the oldest, the third-oldest, issued by the military. It is incredibly prestigious."
Fogarty said his research shows Shelton and Hardman's awards appear to be the first for river rescues.
The men, employed by Inland Marine Service of Hebron, Ky., were on a towboat on the Mississippi about 1.5 miles south of the Poplar Street Bridge at St. Louis when they saw a small bass boat that had mechanical problems or had run out of gas about 7 p.m.
The occupants, two Vietnamese brothers, a friend and a 3-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl, had been on a pleasure cruise. Once disabled, the craft drifted, lodged against a barge fleeting area and began taking on water.
Hardman and Shelton, 40, of Villa Ridge at the southernmost tip of Illinois, were among six Inland workers on a towboat. The two men launched a small rescue boat, which capsized, and Hardman submerged. Shelton recovered Hardman and administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but his co-worker was deceased.
Shelton radioed for another vessel to assist, returning to help the barge workers rescue the family before their boat sank, including snatching the infant from one of the men's outstretched arms. Eighteen other people involved received the Coast Guard's meritorious public service commendation.
"Today is a celebration of heroic actions, a family that is alive today" because of the rescuers' actions, Black said. "They were extremely daring and heroic; they were in danger of being drawn under the barge."
As part of the program, Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Satterfield gave the invocation and benediction, including "A Prayer for Mariners."
Black presented Shelton with a folder containing a certificate and description of his heroic actions, and pinned the medal on Shelton's shirt. The audience, including his sister and her family, applauded.
"Thank you all for coming; this is an honor," Shelton said.
A line of Coast Guard members then shook his hand.
Afterward, Shelton said he and Hardman had worked together for about a year and were friends.
"He would do anything for anyone," Shelton said about Hardman.
During the ceremony, Inland President David Hammond said the company never will forget June 12, 2012, when the men saw the boat with two helpless toddlers and had to decide quickly, "Do we help or let them try to make it on their own?"
Our dear friend, Kyle Hardman, did not survive," Hammond said. "At risk of losing his life, Jarvise Shelton did not hesitate. He is a quiet man, an honorable man and a man who believes in actions over words."
Afterward, Hammond said his employees are trained in rescuing people from water, but not required to do so.
"It's part of a river man's code," he said. "We respond because of our heritage. They volunteered; they were the first to volunteer out of six on deck. Those are the two that stepped forward. Kyle had stepped forward in the past. There was a fire on the boat, and he instantly put out the fire before it engulfed the rest of the boat while people were sleeping. It was hard on us; it's a family business. He was a wonderful man."
On the brink of the Memorial Day weekend, with numerous boaters in the Alton area planning to go out on the Mississippi, Black offered cautions: "I would like to tell boaters to stay away from towboats and (barge) fleeting areas; the river is unforgiving. If you have friends or family who will be boating, tell them to keep the boat in good condition, wear life jackets and don't drink."
Hammond said the dangerous St. Louis Harbor on the Mississippi River "is no place for a recreational boat," especially a small vessel.