MAHOPAC N.Y. — A Mahopac bartender has been awarded the Liberty Medal, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an individual by the New York State Senate, for rescuing an 8-year-old boy from the frigid waters of Lake Mahopac last April after the kayak he was riding in overturned.
Michelle Margilaj was working that Friday evening at il Laghetto restaurant on South Lake Boulevard, which she remembers to be cold, raining and very windy, when she noticed something odd floating in the water. She went outside to the restaurant’s dock and saw a man and his son hanging on to a capsized kayak. Margilaj dove into the water and swam several hundred feet and brought the boy into shore while his father was able to paddle in using the capsized kayak to stay afloat.
At the July 27 Carmel Town Board meeting, state Sen. Terrance Murphy awarded Margilaj the medal, which is given to “individuals who have merited special commendation for exceptional, heroic or humanitarian acts on behalf of their fellow New Yorkers.”
Margilaj was also awarded a proclamation by the Town Board, recognizing her heroic efforts.
“It’s a testament to your bravery,” Supervisor Ken Schmitt told Margilaj. “There is a young boy who is alive today because of what you did. The town of Carmel thanks you from the bottom of our heart.”
Before presenting her with the Liberty Medal, Murphy told the audience, “These (medal presentations) are the nice things we get to do.”
“Michelle saw a child in danger of drowning and never hesitated to act,” the senator said. “She jumped into the frigid water at great personal risk. Through her unwavering courage and her skill as a swimmer, Michelle was able to save a young boy’s life. She is an amazing woman, and a true hero.”
Schmitt said that Margilaj deserves to be recognized for her act of heroism.
“Michelle spun into action when a child was in distress,” he said. “She put saving the child and his father before her own life.”
When Margilaj, 23, realized that the boat had capsized and a man was clinging to its side, she called out to the man, asking if he was all right. He yelled back that he was in trouble and needed help. The boat had drifted far from shore. He was trying to turn the boat over, but due to the effect of the cold water his legs had literally frozen and he could barely move.
It was then that Margilaj thought she heard a boy yelling for help. She saw a boy in a lifejacket struggling in the water near the boat. Acting on pure instinct, she leaped into the freezing water fully clothed.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone should try and help, especially when a little boy is involved,” Margilaj said. “You have to help a child when they’re in danger. I have several young cousins. I’d want someone to come to their aid if they were in trouble. The game also changes when someone is helpless. You have to do whatever you can to save them.”
Margilaj said she has always been a strong swimmer. Her father loved fishing and often took his children out in his boat with him. He was adamant about his children being good swimmers.
The boy was wearing a lifejacket, but it was too big for him and it was hindering him more than it was helping him. Michelle flipped him on his back so he could float.
With his legs almost completely frozen, the father was unable to help. Assuring him everything would be fine and that she would help his son, Margilaj urged the man to paddle toward shore. She followed, pulling the boy behind her.
“This is unbelievable,” Margilaj said of receiving the medal. “I hope this brings more good into the world.”
Schmitt said Margilaj was a role model and an inspiration to people everywhere.
“This will resonate out there and more people will be inspired by what you did,” he said.