A South Bay lifeguard earned the Governor’s Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor award for a risky rescue in a deep-water cave off Palos Verdes’ rocky coast.
Nick Macko, an Ocean Lifeguard Specialist with the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguards, was given the honor on Monday, Jan. 25, during a virtual ceremony with Governor Gavin Newsom.
It was the third award Macko has received for the rescue, following the California Surf Lifesaving Association Medal of Valor and the United States Lifesaving Association Medal of Valor awards last year. It's only the second received by the department, the first awarded to Pat O'Neil for a swift water rescue in Malibu Canyon in 2018.
Macko on Tuesday said the award was unexpected.
"It was very humbling experience because all the people who put in the hard work and time to nominate me ... to find out all those people pushed to get me this award and went out of their way to show this appreciation," said the Manhattan Beach resident, 39.
The near-death incident happened July 2019, when Macko responded to an emergency call for a swimmer trapped in a deep-water cave at Abalone Cove in Rancho Palos Verdes. Macko headed toward the rocky bluff and spotted the trapped swimmer who was struggling against the high surf.
In a story last September, Macko recounted the events that day, when a rising tides, big waves and looming nightfall threatened the person – soon likely to be out of air -- trapped in the dark cave.
Macko, who typically guards the surf and sand in Hermosa Beach, jumped into the rough water in the gorge , where water rushes like a river into an area lined with sharp rocks.
“Even the best of us are nervous in there,” Macko said last September. “We all know if you get trapped in the tunnel, it’s a matter of minutes before you run out of air.”
Macko, who has 21 years of experience as a lifeguard, nine of them with Los Angeles County, said that night two years ago was one of the most unique, dramatic rescues of his career.
Once in the cave, Macko found the man clinging onto the wall. He climbed on the wall and wrapped a rescue flotation tube around the man.
Macko felt the wave motion of the ocean, and as it receded he knew a bigger set was building and on its way back into the cave.
The pair scrambled up the rocks to safety just in time, seconds before a big wave swept in.
Macko said the man was treated for several broken ribs and lacerations from the strong surf pushing him onto the rocks.
Although the coronavirus pandemic required the ceremony to be held virtually, it was still a special occasion. He wore the medal around his neck, hanging from a red, white and blue ribbon.
"The pandemic has definitely changed things. Just having the governor speak to you, it was a very warm experience," he said. "I was extremely taken aback that I was one of the few chosen."
Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby in an announcement said it was Macko’s exceptional courage and heroism that earned him the “highest of honors.”
“We are proud of your achievement and appreciate your dedication to the residents and communities in your care,” Osby said.
Macko was one of eight public safety leaders given the Governor's award. Others included police officers and the California Military Department Medal of Valor was awarded to seven members of the California National Guard.
Each of the honorees distinguished themselves through courageous conduct above and beyond the call of duty. The honorees "demonstrated unparalleled heroism in service to their communities, risking their own safety to save lives,” said Governor Newsom in a news release.
“Their actions are an inspiration to all of us and we offer our deep reverence and gratitude to these extraordinary individuals for the sacrifices they make every day to protect their fellow Californians,” Newsom said.
The Governor awards the Public Safety Medal of Valor to public safety officers recognized by the Attorney General for "extraordinary valor above and beyond the call of duty."
Hawthorne Police Department officer Jose Gomez was also honored for a call on April 7, 2019, when a male suspected armed with a gun chased a female toward the Manhattan Gateway Shopping Center. The suspect began shooting at Gomez, striking his patrol cruiser. Gomez exited his patrol cruiser and engaged the suspect by returning fire, utilizing a zig-zag approach.
The suspect ran toward a shopping outlet and took cover. He once again engaged Officer Gomez in an exchange of gunfire from a distance of approximately 100 yards. Officer Gomez took cover behind the pillars in front of a restaurant and returned fire, exhausting his rifle capabilities.
Back up arrived and as the suspect jumped over a wall, he was shot by Gomez, who was also shot by the suspect. Fellow officers carried Gomez to a nearby police unit. Multiple agencies were able to local and arrest the suspect, who was taken into custody by the Manhattan Beach SWAT Officers.
The Attorney General’s Office receives nominations from public safety agencies to be reviewed by the Medal of Valor Review Board, which makes a recommendation to the Attorney General. The California Military Department processes nominations for the Medal of Valor, with awards approved by the Adjutant General.