By Steve Guntli
A Blaine native is being received as a hero in California.
Jeffrey Ginther, a senior master sergeant with the U.S. Air Force, was honored with a heroic commendation from the California State Legislature after diving into a canal to save two people from a car wreck. California assemblyman Jim Patterson presented Ginther with an award certificate on September 12.
Ginther was born and raised in Blaine, and said he still considers it home. He joined the United States Air Force shortly after graduating high school and never looked back. He has now served for 28 years, 16 of which were spent as a combat search and rescue specialist. He put those skills to use during multiple deployments to Afghanistan. He is now stationed as a flight gear superintendent and survival instructor in Fresno, California.
On July 29, Ginther was pulling out of a McDonald’s restaurant in Clovis, California when he saw a car swerve to avoid a bicyclist who had changed lanes without warning. The car went off the road and crashed into a canal.
Both Ginther and the bicyclist dove into the water to help save the driver.
“My first though when I hit the water was, ‘I didn’t think the current would be this fast,’” Ginther said. “I drive past that canal every day. Most of the year, it’s dry, but they were flooding the farmlands in central California at the time, so it was at max capacity.”
The fast current made it difficult, but Ginther was able to open the passenger door and help the driver out. The 19-year-old driver, unable to swim and panicking, kept clinging to the cyclist, pulling his head under water and putting them both at risk. While Ginther was trying to help the cyclist stay afloat, the three lost their grip on the car and began floating downstream. The driver tried to climb on his two rescuers, pushing them both underwater. The weight of the two men, in addition to Ginther’s heavy military uniform, was forcing him to the bottom of the canal.
Ginther, who is 6’5″, was able to push off the bed of the 8-foot-deep canal and “bob” the others along the surface until they reached the side of the canal and were able to pull themselves to safety. The three had drifted about 50 yards from the crash site. Another 50 yards, Ginther said, and they would have been snagged up in a tangled nest of tree branches and debris beneath a bridge that could have seriously injured or even killed them.
Ginther said that his years of military training made the rescue more of an impulse than an act of bravery.
“All of the training I’ve had over the years made it second nature,” he said. “So at the time, I wasn’t scared. I was more just concerned, and knew I had to get us out of the water before we hit the bridge.”
“The most disturbing part was most people didn’t make a move to help,” he said. “There were probably a dozen people on the side of the road when I got there, but most were just shooting videos on their phones.”
Blaine resident Dave Puntillo and his wife, Jan, were Ginther’s neighbors for many years. Ginther graduated from Blaine High School at the same time as their daughter, and the two families have remained close. Puntillo affectionately refers to Ginther as his adopted stepson.
“He’s a remarkable young man,” he said. “I can’t say enough about him. For him to save these people like this, it’s what he does, what he trains for.”
Other members of Ginther’s unit submitted his name for the Airman’s Medal, the highest non-combat medal the Air Force awards. To qualify for the medal, the recipient has to be shown to have willingly endangered their life for the safety of others.
Ginther said he will hear whether he’s receiving the award in about a month. If he wins, he’ll be one of only about 300 to receive the honor. Puntillo said if Ginther receives the award, he and his wife will carve time in their schedule to attend the ceremony.