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Honoring a man by his name

Don Guinta died while trying to save others. A memorial to him will change the lives of children.

By MELANIE AVE
Published July 18, 2005


[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
More than 5,000 people signed a petition to name a new school named after Don Giunta (right), a former guidance counselor, who died a year ago while trying to save two children from drowning near Honeymoon Island. The school is next door to Ron and Saundra Frost Elementary School.

A year later and miles away from where the lives of two families collided in pain, a symbol of sacrifice rises.

A new school in Riverview will help people remember what was lost and what was given that day, during a sunny morning of fishing and swimming at Honeymoon Island in Dunedin. The building is named for a man who made his living helping children and who lost his life doing the same.

The school colors will be red and black.

Those are the colors of flags that tell beachgoers conditions are too dangerous to be in the water, and there is no lifeguard on duty.

On July 21, 2004, after an emergency cell phone call from the island, the 911 operator transcribed the following: kids being pulled under because of riptide.

Don Giunta, two years into retirement from Tampa's Ben Hill Middle School, was fishing with his wife, Peggy, and daughter, Sara. They were minutes from heading inland for lunch.

Peggy Giunta (pronounced June-ta) dawdled; they were having a nice time fishing.

What if she hadn't, she wonders now. Would her husband of 27 years still be alive? Would others have died instead?

It was not quite noon on a Wednesday when screams from panicked boys and their frightened grandmother reached the Giuntas.

A strong tidal current had grabbed Patricia Ballard and her four grandsons, ages 8 to 17, who were visiting her from Georgia on their annual summer vacation. They had gone to Honeymoon Island for the day from her New Port Richey home.

They were standing in the water when the current swept them 40 yards offshore and 150 yards down the beach toward the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier, Peggy Giunta remembers hearing a fisherman warn other children away from the area because of a fast-moving current.

Island regulars knew how dangerous the area is. Don Giunta knew, too. He and his wife went there almost weekly from their home in Lutz.

Two boys made it to shore on their own.

Giunta and Sara dived into the water and helped pull a third to the beach.

Another 911 entry noted that two other people were still in the water, and that one had been pulled on the beach but was not breathing.

The young man pulled from the water survived.

Struggling against the fast-moving current, Giunta held 8-year-old David out of the water so his grandmother could reach him. Ballard, her arms wrapped around the boy, latched onto a fishing line and followed the thin thread to shore.

A man walking on the beach with his girlfriend saw Giunta floating face-down in the water and helped pull him onto the beach as bystanders took turns giving CPR. His face was blue.

His daughter, Sara, her neck bruised from helping the oldest boy during the rescue, ran up the beach to her mother, crying.

Peggy Giunta, who initially didn't realize the seriousness of what was happening, made her way to her husband, the man she regularly told, "You gave me heaven on Earth." He was unconscious. A stranger breathed into his mouth. "Please don't stop," Giunta's wife said. "Please don't give up."

Emergency workers said 55-year-old Giunta was in cardiac arrest, his condition life-threatening. By the time they got him to Mease Hospital, he was dead.

One week later about 175 people remembered Giunta at a funeral service held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Ybor City. Friends thought of him as a quiet man who loved his family, his garden, his bees and his birds.

Family friend Fran Costantino mobilized the community in an effort to get a school named for Giunta. People signed petitions at blood banks, schools, churches. An aunt of the rescued boys gathered signatures from as far away as Orlando.

Costantino presented the Hillsborough County School Board with a petition with more than 5,000 names of people who wanted a school named after Giunta and 50 letters of support - from the mayor, Tampa City Council members, county commissioners and lawmakers.

Most of them had never met Giunta. But they were moved by the last act of his life.

After two emotional appeals by supporters, the School Board agreed to name the new school being built off South Falkenburg Road for Giunta. It opens Aug. 4.

Peggy Giunta, her pain still raw, her tears still ready, has not returned to Honeymoon Island and probably never will.

She does not blame anyone for her husband's death. She believes it was destiny.

"Don," she said, "had to be there that day."

It was just who he was, she said. Even knowing the fatal outcome, she says her husband still would have plunged into the water.

"He would not sit idly by when anyone needed help, especially kids."

--Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 18, 2005, 01:37:12]


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