In the dimness of his photographic darkroom he dreamed of honor and glory. In his fantasies, it was a millionaire he would pull from the wreck, leaving him not only famous, but wonderfully rich.
When his dream became reality last month on the Cabin John Bridge, however, it was a dying truck driver, not a philanthropist, that Air Force S/Sgt. Peter Stankiewicz attempted to save. But the 25-year-old photographer was not to be denied the day of glory of which he had dreamed.
Flanked by a military honor guard of 200, joined by generals and his parents on the parade grounds of Ft. Myer, Stankiewicz stood tall in the spring sunshine and saw his Walter Mitty fantasies come true.
He quavered slightly when the three-star general pinned the Airman's Medal -- the highest Air Force award for peacetime valor -- to his chest. When it was over and his baby cheeks still flushed with pride, the former Boy Scout who dived into the Potomac trying to save the truck driver was a certified hero.
A real hero.
"This is the tops, the high point of my life" he said, the lone gold medal dangling against his blue-gray uniform. "You dream about things like this happening. I think everybody does.
"But," he chuckled, "I'm not used to having all these people around."
It was a cold, windy day in March when Stankiewicz, driving from his home in Gaithersburg to his Defense Intelligence Agency job in Rosslyn, stopped his Datsun on the Cabin John Bridge to see the cab of a tractor trailer awash in the river below.
Stankiewicz was among a handful of would-be rescuers who descended the steep banks of the river trying to save the life of the driver, who had plunged through a Capital Beltway guard rail. A novice swimmer, he dove into the 35-degree water and pulled the semiconscious driver from the cab, administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the shore.
The driver, a Baltimore man, later died. Stankiewicz apparently was "too busy being cold" to notice that exposure had dropped his own body temperature to 89 degrees.
He was taken to a hospital and while there police had his car towed from the bridge. The Poor Richard Crane Service, whose Rockville offices were bombarded with complaints after the firm charged the serviceman $25 for the tow, later offered to drop the fee altogether.
In the end the Air Force Recreation Association reimbursed Stankiewicz, and his workmates, who also offered to pay for the tow, bought him a Superman T-shirt.
"He's got a hard head," said Stankiewicz' father, John, a retired Navy intelligence officer. "I always knew that if something like this ever happened and he was around, he'd be involved."
"It just came naturally," said Stankiewicz, a picture of blushing humility. "You see so much of it on TV."