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Life-saving hero Jack Chao dies at 83

Jack Chao, who died Monday at the age of 83, spent more than a quarter-century working as a rigger in the Tampa shipyard.

But it was what he did there on March 29, 1945, that sealed his legacy as a hero.

Mr. Chao, then 27, helped save co-worker Earl W. Morton from suffocating below the deck of the ship on which they were working.

Morton had been overcome by fumes of high-octane gasoline 14 feet below the deck. Mr. Chao and pipefitter foreman Robert N. Wechtel pulled Morton from the hull and onto the ship's deck.

Mr. Chao collapsed on the deck and passed out after saving his co-worker. When he woke up, he once told his wife, he was singing, God Bless America.

Mr. Chao's act of heroism earned him the prestigious Carnegie Hero Medal, given to recognize acts of outstanding civilian heroism.

The medal came with $500.

His wife, Vernie, said he was proud of the honor but never flaunted it. She had to go digging Thursday to find the old bronze medal, encased in a worn blue-leather holder.

"We had pictures up of our children, our grandchildren and other family pictures," she said. "But he never would put out his Carnegie Medal, although he was very proud he had it. I guess he thought people would think he was bragging."

Mr. Chao was the oldest of five children, family members said. His parents had immigrated to the United States from Spain and settled in Tampa.

Aside from a stint as a merchant seaman, which took him to South Africa and Europe, Mr. Chao spent his working years in the shipyard until his retirement in 1982.

He met his future wife in Seminole Heights at a Monopoly party. The couple had a son, a daughter and five grandchildren.

They lived in Tampa until October, when the couple moved to Zephyrhills to be closer to their son, Albert. In March, Mr. Chao was diagnosed with lung cancer, the result of years of exposure to asbestos while working in the shipyard.

He moved into the Hospice of Pasco house in Dade City as his condition worsened. On Monday, Mr. Chao finally succumbed to the disease.

He left behind a family full of fond memories.

"He was a good father and a good husband," said son, Albert Chao, 60. "He was a fine Christian man. That's why I know I'll see him again one day."

Mr. Chao's wife agreed.

"He was very kind and loving," she said. "He was very kind-hearted. I couldn't have asked for a better husband. We were very close."

Mr. Chao also left behind a bronze medal and what it stood for: that he was a hero.

"He told me how it happened before he died," Albert Chao said. "He was very proud that he risked his life to save another."