“It was just instincts really,” said Connor Bystrom, 22, who last year saved his friend C.J. Wickersham from a shark attack in the Gulf of Mexico about six miles off Anna Maria Island.
The instincts that naturally led him to rescue his friend of 17 years have now led to a prestigious hero’s award, the Carnegie Medal, and a $5,000 scholarship from the 108-year-old Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.
The commission has awarded 9,539 medals to recognize “ordinary citizens who perform extraordinary acts of heroism,” according to the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission website.
Throughout the 108 years since the fund was established by industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, $34.4 million has been given in one-time grants, scholarship aid, death benefits and continuing assistance.
In Bystrom’s case, he, Wickersham and a group of friends were spearfishing, having lunch and enjoying a day on the water Sept. 24 before the attack occurred. Wickersham was fishing from a ledge near the floor of the Gulf, and as he surfaced, he called out he had been attacked by a shark, Bystrom said.
Bystrom, who with the others were about 25 feet away from Wickersham in the Bystrom family boat, immediately jumped into the water, swam to his friend, grabbed him by the arm and towed him back to the boat where the others helped pull him up. Once inside the boat, Bystrom said, he used an anchor line to make a tourniquet to stop the bleeding from the large bite on Wickersham’s leg.
According to reports after the incident, Bystrom laid across Wickersham to secure the tourniquet and towels used to stop the bleeding. Another in the group called 911 on a cell phone and arranged to have an ambulance waiting at the Rod & Reel Pier, and another friend drove the boat quickly to the pier and beached it on the shore.
Wickersham was transferred to the ambulance and transported to an awaiting Bayflite medical helicopter, and on to Bayfront Medical Center for treatment.
Bystrom says Wickersham has made a full recovery, and they remain friends and “see each other a lot.”
About his award and scholarship, Bystrom said, “It’s great.”
The scholarship will help with some of the costs of the veterinary medical school in Grenada that he will attend starting Aug. 5, he said.
Bystrom, a surgical technician at a Sarasota veterinary office, also works with his veterinarian father, Bill Bystrom, and his mother, a wildlife rehabilitator.
He says, “I’ve always loved animals.”
His golden retriever, Sailor, will be moving with him to Grenada next month.
Bystrom is an Anna Maria Elementary School and Manatee High graduate. He studied ocean engineering at Palm Beach State College, Boca Raton, before deciding to focus on a degree in veterinary medicine.
The young man he saved, his family, and the group of friends with him that day — all who took quick and appropriate action to ensure Wickersham’s recovery — all agree: The Carnegie Medal is a great tribute to Bystrom, a humble, quiet young man. A hero.
CARNEGIE HERO FUND COMMISSION
Case Summary June 27, 2012
CONNOR M. BYSTROM
Holmes Beach, Florida
Connor M. Bystrom rescued Charles J. Wickersham from a shark attack, Anna Maria, Florida, September 24, 2011. Wickersham, 21, was spear fishing in the Gulf of Mexico with friends, including Bystrom, 22, surgical veterinarian technician. Their boat was anchored in water about 38 feet deep at a point about six miles from shore. Wickersham was in the water, at the surface, about 25 feet from the boat when a shark bit him deeply on his left thigh; the shark was thought to be a 9-foot-long bull shark. Wickersham struck it on the nose with both fists, and it released him. Bleeding profusely, he shouted to the others that he had been attacked by a shark. Bystrom jumped into the water and swam to him. He grabbed Wickersham by an arm and, swimming, towed him to the boat, where the other men in the party pulled him aboard. Bystrom climbed aboard and with the others tended to Wickersham as they sped to a marina. Airlifted to the hospital, where he was detained six days, Wickersham required surgery, including significant suturing, to close his wound. He recovered in three months.
• Editor’s note: This summary is from the www.carnegiehero.org website.