Seventeen-year-old Zachary Maggi of Pine was dipping his toes into the water of the Outer Banks near Kitty Hawk that day in June when he heard the terrified calls for help of a little girl he could see on a boogie board out on the water. She was being pulled by a rip tide farther and farther away from the North Carolina coast.
Her panicked grandfather, recuperating from a concussion he had sustained a day earlier, had joined the girl's calls for help.
Without pausing to think, Zachary plunged into the water -- his mind blank, as far as he can recall -- and, acting on instinct, he pulled her to shore.
It was only afterward that he was made to realize the heroism of that instinctual act to help -- an instinct he believes was cultivated by the mantra of the Air Force Junior ROTC program he has been participating since he was a freshman at the Pine-Richland High School.
For his service before self, he was awarded the program's highest honor for a cadet during a surprise ceremony Nov. 19 at his school. The Gold Valor Award was given to him in front of his fellow Air Force Junior ROTC members by Maj. Michael Morrison and Chief Michael Gasparetto.
"I didn't see it coming," said Zachary, a high school junior, moments after the ceremony was completed. He had been told he was to attend a program in the school's Large Group Instruction room during second-period Baking Basics class. When he entered the room and saw his parents, Roger and Paul Maggi, he knew something was up.
"My whole unit was there. My family. Friends. It was amazing," Zachary commented.
Now, when he reflects on that day, June 23, he realizes the impact of his actions though he understates the heroic actions he took.
"I really didn't stop to think about it. It was our first day on vacation and my brothers and sister and I had run down to the beach to feel the water," he said, referring to his siblings, Jacob, 14, Joseph, 11, and Anna, 8. "I wasn't planning to go in. It was cold."
His plans changed, though, when he heard Zoey, 8, calling for help.
"Nothing went through my mind until I got back to the shore. I just jumped in. When were back on shore, everyone was making a big deal out of it, saying I saved her life. Her dad and mom came over and gave me big hugs," he said. The girl's family wrote a thank you note and took a picture, which were forwarded to Zachary's commanders, who turned over the information to Junior ROTC headquarters. The award followed.
Zachary -- his title is Cadet Sgt. Zachary J. Maggi -- credits the program and its core values for the happy outcome of Zoey's brush with death.
"I wasn't thinking of myself. I didn't realize any of the dangers that were out there. I was just responding to Zoey," Zachary said.
Zachary, who is debating a military profession versus an engineering program of studies at a college, plans to finish high school as a Junior ROTC member.
"It's made me into a person I can be proud of," he said. He's one of 63 high school students who participate.
Maj. Morrison agrees that the constant inculcation of the program's values -- integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do -- sets a foundation for students to be built into better citizens. "I think what Zachary did was a perfect display of those values coming to the forefront. He knew the right thing to do, and he did it with excellence," the major said.
The program involves a daily class period and extends into after-school hours with community service in the evenings and on weekends.
According to staff, the Gold Valor Award is given out about once every two years. "You have to risk your life to earn this honor," Chief Gasparetto said.
School superintendent Brian Miller congratulated Zachary for his heroism.
"I feel it's an honor to have a brother who is unselfish and saved a little girl who could've died," sixth-grader Joseph Maggi said. "It's an honor to have him as my brother." His sister, a third-grader, ran to hug Zachary following the presentation
"I never thought that he'd be able to something like that," said Anna Maggi. "I'm pretty proud."
Zachary's brother, Jacob, agreed that his brother's actions represent the Air Force Junior ROTC core values. Jacob is familiar with the program because he is a ninth-grade cadet. "I think it's really amazing what he did," said Cadet Airman Basic Jacob Maggi. "It's really great and what the program is all about."
Zachary's fellow cadets each shook his hand after the surprise assembly concluded.
Karen Kane: email@example.com or 724-772-9180.