Rescuers get heroes’ reception

Remarkable.

Exceptional.

Inspirational.

The adjectives flowed in the Holmes Beach City Hall commission chambers Oct. 12, when local mayors honored the six friends who rescued C.J. Wickersham, 21, of Longboat Key, from the Gulf of Mexico after a bull shark ripped open his leg.

The gathering, organized by Islander publisher Bonner Joy, brought mayors Jim Brown of Longboat Key, Mike Selby of Anna Maria, Bob Bartelt of Bradenton Beach and Rich Bohnenberger of Holmes Beach to the podium to praise “C.J.’s Heroes” and dedicate Oct. 12 to their heroics.

“You are remarkable people,” Bohnenberger, a retired firefighter, told Wickersham’s rescuers — Oceanna Beard, Connor Bystrom, Kiera Dunn, Max Gazzo, Katie Mattas and Lee White.

They were seated in the first row of seats in the chambers.

Behind them, parents, grandparents, siblings and Island well-wishers delivered applause with each mayoral statement.

“I want to thank all of you for saving one of our citizens of Longboat Key,” Brown said.

“It’s such a wonderful thing that you did,” he added.

“Congratulations,” said Bartelt, also a retired firefighter.

“Your reaction was exemplary,” he continued. In the face of real adversity, you rose to the occasion. …You did exactly what you were supposed to do. You young people are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. We all hope and wish that you will use the same courage and fortitude in your future lives.”

Selby said, “You kids are amazing.”

Irene Bystrom, whose grandson is Connor Bystrom, sat in the audience. “They’re heroes,” she said. “I’m not surprised they did what they did.”

The friends were about 6 miles offshore of Anna Maria Island enjoying an afternoon of swimming, spearfishing and picnicking, when a shark bit Wickersham.

His friends pulled him into the boat, called 911 and tended to the wound as they raced toward awaiting paramedics at the Rod & Reel Pier in Anna Maria.

Lyn Mattas, who attended the ceremony with daughter Katie, said she “was scared to death” after learning of the shark bite. But she was not shocked to learn her daughter and friends acted “so maturely, so level-headed” in the crisis.

Grandmother Joan Coons said proudly that Wickersham’s rescuers were “fearsome.”

Each mayor presented the young people — all residents or with ties to Longboat Key or Anna Maria Island — with copies of proclamations. The mayors then presented the rescuers with ribbons and medallions and showed off commemorative plaques to hang in each city hall.

After the ceremony, Wickersham entered the chambers on crutches, his left leg in a brace.

Bohnenberger welcomed Wickersham. “You’ve got some good friends,” he said.

Wickersham hugged each of his friends and, at the microphone, said, “I want to thank all these guys for saving me that day. …I’m just glad they were out there with me.”

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