Connor Bystrom and C.J. Wickersham are best friends, and have been since kindergarten. But what happened to them as 22-year-old men has bonded them forever as brothers.
On September 24, 2011, the two were with a group of friends spear fishing in waters off Anna Maria Island. As C.J. swam to the surface to catch his breath, he felt a tug on his leg. At first he thought it was a buddy pulling a prank. But it was no joke.
"I looked down and saw a big head at me and I knew it was a big shark," he said.
A nine-foot bull shark's jaws bit into C.J's left thigh. He used the butt of his spear gun to thump the shark in the head to free himself, but the damage was already done.
His friend Connor watched it play out from the deck of a boat.
"He was flailing around in the water and he just started screaming ‘I got bit by a shark!' And within a few seconds there was a five-foot blood circle in diameter all around. I knew it wasn't good when I saw that," Connor said.
In an instant, Connor dove into the water to save his friend, seemingly ignoring the shark fin on the surface.
"He was in the water pretty fast. Right after it happened," C.J. said.
Conner pulled C.J. to safety, stopped the bleeding with a tourniquet, and rushed him to shore.
Then paramedics airlifted C.J. to the hospital. Surgeons saved his leg. Connor saved his life.
"If you would have seen it and been there and seen the circumstances, what it was, it was kind of something that had to happen," as Connor described in nonchalant fashion.
The Carnegie Foundation heard about Connor's courageous act and recently awarded him its prestigious medal for heroism.
"I think that's really cool," said Connor. C.J. believes he got the bigger gift: "Guess I'm lucky to be here."
Nearly a year later C.J. has fully recovered and full use of his leg; though he's left with an indelible scar of a shark's jaws. It's a wound that required nearly 800 hundred stitches to close.
For more information: http://www.carnegiehero.org/
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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