MANCHESTER — Temperatures were hovering in the low 30s on the afternoon of March 5, 2013, when a case worker called police to report a client intended to drown herself in the Merrimack River.
Immediately, police and firefighters were dispatched to the river, which was roaring because of an early snowmelt.
“The river was pretty high and flowing pretty good,” recalled Officer Michael Dunlap.
He arrived at Arms Park about the same time as Officer Richard Valenti. They saw the woman immediately, about 15 to 20 feet from shore, up to her neck in the roiling, bone-chilling water.
The 20-year-old made her way out of the water about 20 feet from shore and then sat on top of a boulder.
Dunlap ran back to his patrol car to get a “rescue disc” — a bright orange disc attached to a rope — to throw to the woman, hoping she would grab onto it so they could pull her to shore.
Valenti said they threw the disc to her a couple of times, but it quickly became apparent she had no strength to grab onto it.
“She was clawing at it,” Dunlap said. “Unfortunately, she had been in the river so long she had no dexterity in her hands.”
Dunlap, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who just retired from the Air National Guard after a combined 23 years of service, said he had cold weather training while in the military. He said it appeared the woman was suffering from hypothermia.
Valenti, who has had training to deal with individuals suffering from mental illness, tried to speak to the woman.
“She wasn’t really responding to anything,” Valenti said. “It was just she was so cold. There was no way she was going to be able to physically even hold onto it.”
“We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going in,’” Dunlap said.
Together, they made their way out to the boulder, picked up the woman, and carried her through the rushing waters to shore where other officers, firefighters and an ambulance were waiting.
“Her skin was cold like a piece of ice,” Dunlap said. “She couldn’t even stand.”
Dunlap said neither he nor Valenti thought about the danger they put themselves in that day and don’t consider themselves heroes.
“What it boils down to is it’s the job,” Dunlap said. It’s what a police officer does, he said.
“She survived, thank God,” Valenti said.
The Union Leader Hero Awards honor New Hampshire residents who have risked their lives in the previous year to save or attempt to save the life of another person.
The program is sponsored by Citizens Bank and presented by the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Recipients of the 2014 Union Leader Hero Awards will be honored at a ceremony at 3 p.m. May 13 at the State House in Concord. The event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is requested.
For more information on the program or ceremony, contact Community Relations Manager Shannon Sullivan at 206-7833 or email@example.com.