When 28-year-old Lyle Eagle Tail entered the frothing waters of the Big Sioux River last year attempting to rescue 6-year-old Garrett Wallace and his 16-year-old sister Madison from the foam, he was following the way of the Lakota grandmothers.
Now the Lakota warrior’s heroism, which cost him his life, has been recognized nationally. He is among 21 people awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission announced last month.
Eagle Tail, whose fiancée had a baby on the way, did not think of himself when he took on the cause of someone he did not know. He was merely picnicking near the falls and saw Garrett fall into the Big Sioux River, disappearing into a thick layer of foam, the Carnegie Hero Commission recounted. Madison went in after him, but she slipped under the foam as well.
“From another party in the park, Eagle Tail, 28, restaurant employee, responded to the scene and let others hold to him as he lay on the bank and attempted to reach Garrett and Madison,” the Commission said. “He fell from their grasp into the river. Garrett surfaced, made his way to the bank, and was pulled to safety, but Madison and Eagle Tail drowned.”
The harrowing story was recounted by friends in the days and weeks after the March 2013 tragedy.
The Carnegie award was established by steel baron Andrew Carnegie after two would-be rescuers died in the aftermath of a mining explosion that killed an additional 179 people in Pennsylvania in 1904.
Award candidates “must be a civilian who voluntarily risks his or her life to an extraordinary degree while saving or trying to save the life of another person,” the Carnegie website stipulates. While immediate family members of the person in question are not often singled out, the organization made an exception in this case, said Walter Rutkowski, president of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, to South Dakota Public Broadcasting.
“The case was called to our attention because of the actions of Mr. Eagle Tail going into the river after both Madison and her brother Garrett,” Rutkowski said. “And the further we looked into the case we found that Madison was the first into the river to search for her brother, so we extended consideration to her as well.”
The awards have been bestowed upon 9,718 people since their inception in 1904, according to the commission, chosen from more than 86,000 nominees by a 21-member panel. About 20 percent are awarded posthumously, the commission said. The award comes with $5,000 grant.
The honor is of course bittersweet, as a response from Eagle Tail’s father on a Facebook page attested.
“Here it is my son…..You’re a hero… Our Lakota warrior! ‘Akicita’!" wrote his father in all capital letters under a photo of the award. “I am so proud of you son, but still my heart is broken… for all to see…….Love you son!”