Matteo "Matt" Militello describes it simply as "a crazy, freak accident."
"It never happens. It was next to impossible," he says of the incident at the end of the Friday St. Peter's Greasy Pole that left him with two fractured vertebrae in his neck.
Yet it did happen. After his cousin, Frank Taormina, claimed the flag in the Friday Greasy Pole Walk, Militello took a step or two onto the pole, dove into the water and began to swim away from the pole and dock, as most participants do in celebration. But as he did, he was struck from above by another walker, who was waiting for Militello to clear the area but fell and inadvertently landed on Militello's head.
The second walker immediately helped pull Militello to the surface and assisted in bringing him ashore.
"There was no negligence in any way," Militello said Tuesday. He added that, while he was "out" from the time of contact, the other walker "pulled me right up and got me floating."
Militello, who lives in Gloucester and turns 34 on July 11, was transported by Gloucester Fire Department paramedics to Addison Gilbert Hospital, and, after his release on Sunday, is now recovering at home, in a full neck brace.
He has use of his arms and legs, but he is unable to get around extensively or to drive, and faces months of recovery. He said he doesn't expect to be able to begin physical therapy for "a month or two," and both he and his mother Sharon said they expect him to be out 10 weeks or so from his job with McGrath Plumbing.
"But right now, I'm home and I'm healing. I'm about as good as I can be," he said. "I know it could have been worse."
Sharon Militello said her son has walked the Fiesta Greasy Pole since he was 18. She said she had not gone to the Friday walk, but was watching on TV via some of Fiesta's live streaming coverage of the pole walks and seine boat races.
"I had no idea of what happened, because there was a lot of commotion, but everything was focused on the winner," she said. Only later did she learn of the accident.
"I know he's lucky in a lot of ways," she said, adding doctors told her that her son would have likely been paralyzed had his injuries involved the vertebrae just above or just below the ones that were fractured. "So we're grateful. I just hope now nothing like this happens to anyone else."
Staff Writer Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or via email at email@example.com.