Tony and Shawna Polkoski have been visiting the Florida Keys for 24 years. CONTRIBUTED

What started out as an all-too familiar day on the ocean for snowbirds Tony and Shawna Polkoski ended with a freak accident that quickly spiraled into a life-or-death struggle.

“We just started fishing and that’s when it happened,” recalled Tony. 

It was Sunday, March 19 at about 9:40 in the morning. The Polkoskis were about 15 miles offshore, fishing from a Freedom Boat Club vessel in an area known as the Islamorada Humps, when Tony decided to set up his portable outriggers. 

For easy transport, the outriggers were held together with zip ties. Having lost his Leatherman tool the week before, Tony reached for his new knife. Little did he know, the new knife was razor-sharp. 

As the boat bobbed up and down in 2 to 3 foot seas, Tony attempted to cut the zip ties. What happened next is the stuff nightmares are made of.

“It cut it (the zip ties) so easily,” explained Tony. The knife continued, slicing through Tony’s left arm, severing an artery. “The blood was just absolutely squirting all over the place.”

“I was driving the boat,” said Shawna, Tony’s wife of 23 years. “I turn and I almost go into panic mode. We get on the phone and call 911, but we’re so far offshore,” she said of the harrowing ordeal.

As blood gushed from the open artery in Tony’s arm, the couple begged for help.

“We gave the coordinates the best that we could but Tony was losing blood so fast that he was starting to get weak,” said Shawna.

The 911 operator told Shawna to keep pressure on the wound. She did her best, but the blood just kept flowing. 

“We didn’t have a tourniquet or anything on the boat; we actually tried a rope and that wasn’t tight enough,” said Shawna, who by this point was in a complete panic.

TowBoatU.S. owners Ilene Perez and Capt. Carlos Galindo hold up the Association for Rescue at Sea Award. KELLIE BUTLER FARRELL/Keys Weekly

“Blood was all over the place, I tried to use one hand and wipe the blood off so I could see the coordinates on my little handheld GPS, but blood was all over the place. I could have given them the wrong coordinates,” recalled Tony.

Listening to the drama unfold from her office in Islamorada was Ilene Perez, co-owner of Islamorada TowBoatU.S.

“I was upstairs listening to the radios and I hear ‘Medical emergency. Mayday! Bleeding!’” said Perez. “You could tell in her voice, she was so nervous, so freaking out,” recalled Perez of that haunting mayday call.

Perez quickly dispatched TowBoatU.S. co-owner and Navy veteran Capt. Carlos Galindo.

“I could hear the Coast Guard on the radio trying to find them,” recalled Galindo.

Galindo remembered hearing the engines running in the background of the emergency call. He made a split-second decision that, without a doubt, saved Tony’s life.

“Right about five miles from the Islamorada Humps, I turned and I started heading south,” said Galindo. His gut instinct coupled with local knowledge paid off. 

“I could see the 24-Cobia, just sitting there,” said Galindo. “I throttle as fast as I could to them and as I’m getting close, I see a lady on the bow holding a person and waving with one hand to me,” said Galindo.

“The only thing I remember is Shawna saying TowBoat guy is here. He was the first one there,” said Tony.

“He gave the coordinates to the Coast Guard,” recalled Shawna.

Galindo couldn’t believe his eyes. “It looked like a murder scene, blood everywhere.” At first, he did not think there would be a happy ending to this story.

“I didn’t think he was going to make it. His color was changing,” Galindo said. Galindo sprung into rescue mode, not even taking time to put on gloves.

“He didn’t even think about himself. He was caring about the life,” Perez said.

Fortunately for Tony and Shawna, Galindo happened to have the one piece of first aid equipment that would save Tony’s life.

“I remember that a few years ago, Heidi Hungling with the Islamorada Fire Rescue Department gave me a tourniquet and I put it in my boat. This was about three years ago. I put it in my boat and thought, ‘I’m never going to use this. I’ll just have it here,’” Galindo said.

“I pulled the tourniquet out. I jumped on the boat. The blood was coming out like if you opened a water hose, just pouring blood,” Galindo said.

TowBoatU.S. Capt. Carlos Galindo shows a tourniquet similar to the one he used to save Tony Polkoski’s life. KELLIE BUTLER FARRELL/Keys Weekly

“I put the tourniquet on and turned it and turned it until I couldn’t no more and got another towel and put it on there and just kept trying to keep the guy awake until finally I look back and here comes the Coast Guard,” said Galindo.

Tony was rushed by the Coast Guard to shore and then taken to Mariners Hospital where the plumber from Wisconsin learned just how close he came to death.

“The doc said you have six units of blood in you and they had to put three back into me, so I lost half of my blood. Ten more minutes and I wouldn’t be here.”

Capt. Galindo’s heroic acts did not go unnoticed. In November, during the annual 

Conference of Professional Operators for Response Towing ceremony, the Association for Rescue at Sea gave Galindo the Lifesaving Award. The U.S. Coast Guard handed out the honor.

“I’m so proud of him,” Perez said. “He can’t even get an injection or have blood drawn,” she said with a laugh, explaining how Galindo gets squeamish at the sight of blood. 

A few months after the horrific accident, a fully recovered Tony, along with his wife Shawna, showed up at Perez and Galindo’s home.

“He said, ‘We would really like to see you before we leave.’ And when he got here he gave Carlos a hug, he was almost in tears,” recalled Perez. 

“We’re just very grateful and thankful,” said Shawna. “What a nice couple, holy cow,” added Tony.

Tony says he cannot stress enough the role his wife Shawna also played in saving his life. 

“All the folks helped a lot but I really wouldn’t be here if not for her,” Tony said.

In February, Tony and Shawna will return to the Keys; they’ve been vacationing here for 24 years. They fully plan to get together with Tony’s lifesavers and new friends, Carlos and Ilene.

Tony says he has no intention of hanging up his fishing gear, but after his freak accident, he has updated his first aid kit and recommends others do the same. 

“Not only should you have a tourniquet in your boat, you should have one at home.”

Kellie Butler Farrell
Kellie Butler Farrell is a journalist who calls Islamorada home. Kellie spent two decades in television news and also taught journalism at Barry University in Miami and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She loves being outside, whether spending time on the water or zipping down the Old Highway on her electric bike, Kellie is always soaking up the island lifestyle. Kellie and her husband own an electric bike rental company, Keys Ebikes.