Descendants of 2-time Carnegie Medal recipient visit Pittsburgh, Hero Fund

Stella and Michael O’Neill examine Hero Fund records that detail the actions of Carnegie Hero John J. O’Neill, Sr., who was awarded the Carnegie Medal two times for water rescues two years apart. Michael O’Neill later wrote to the Hero Fund, “My family was in awe of your organization and the work you do. The records filled in many gaps for us.”

Although Michael O’Neill knew his father was a Carnegie hero, he didn’t know the details. That’s why, after seeing a rerun of the 60 Minutes story detailing the Hero Fund’s work, he reached out to Fund staff.

O’Neill’s father, John J. O’Neill, Sr., is one of six individuals to receive the Carnegie Medal twice for acts of extraordinary civilian heroism. Both rescues undertaken by O’Neill were along the Hudson River in Yonkers, New York, where O’Neill worked as a road maintenance man.

O’Neill’s first rescue occurred in 1954 when a 41-year-old waitress fell into the Hudson River and, despite having been advised by a physician to avoid physical exertion due to a heart condition, O’Neill ran 250 feet to a ledge along the river, removed his shoes, and jumped 14 feet to the water. He swam to the woman and encircled her waist, bringing her to the surface of the water, and towed her to the nearest pier support where a ladder had been lowered and others assisted them from the water. The woman was revived and both she and O’Neill were treated at a local hospital for shock and exposure. They recovered. 

Two years later, at night, in December 1956, a 62-year-old woman fell from the pier into the water. O’Neill hurried to the same ledge and dropped 14 feet to the near-freezing water, swam 30 feet to the woman, grabbed her, and towed her back to a ladder that others had lowered. As O’Neill held to the ladder and the woman, the rough water caused his head to strike the wall repeatedly; and ice formed on his face and clothing. A rope was lowered to O’Neill, but his hands were so cold he could not tie it to the woman. A man descended the ladder and tied the rope around the woman, who was lifted from the water by others. O’Neill was aided up the ladder. They were treated at the hospital for shock and exposure, and O’Neill’s heart condition was aggravated temporarily. He was hospitalized for a week and then recuperated at home for two months.

Some of the members of the O’Neill family stand in front of the Hero Fund offices in Pittsburgh, when they visited in June to learn more about two-time Carnegie Medal recipient John J. O’Neill, Sr. From left are Michael O’Neill, Stella O’Neill, Jenefer O’Neill Williams, Michelle O’Neill, and Liam O’Neill Murphy.

It was clear after corresponding with Michael O’Neill, the family wanted to know more, so several family members made the trek to the Commission’s offices in Pittsburgh. There, they reviewed the 70-year-old investigative reports on O’Neill’s acts of bravery. 

Edward O’Neill, one of John’s sons, said he was happy to receive more information about his father. “We are so thrilled to be able to see the honor you bestowed on John J. O’Neill up close. Being able to get to know the legacy of our father or, for some of us, our grandfather has been such an amazing experience,” he said.

Following a brief tour of the office, the O’Neill family attended a dinner with Hero Fund President Eric Zahren, Director of Operations Melissa Brock, and board members Linda T. Hills, Kevin Hiles, and Arthur M. Scully III. The following day, the family joined Commission members at the Hero Fund’s annual meeting, where the O’Neill family was recognized by the board.

Zahren reiterated the Commission’s mission to honor and commemorate the “heroes of civilization” that Andrew Carnegie set forth in the Hero Fund’s Deed of Trust. “We will always make sure his legacy is remembered,” he said. 

“It was one of the most remarkable days of our family’s lives. It helped us put closure to our father’s story and it allowed us to share his story with our grandchildren,” Michael O’Neill said.