The commission posthumously honored Zinsenheim on Sunday, April 22, for his fatal effort almost two years earlier to save his friend’s life.
During summer vacation from college — Zinsenheim went to Georgia Southern, Hopkins to Georgia Tech — the 22-year-olds were hiking above a waterfall May 10, 2016, at Lake Toxaway, N.C., when Hopkins slipped and fell partway down a 150-foot cliff. Zinsenheim fell all the way to the bottom during his rescue attempt and died at the scene.
Hopkins died at a hospital.
The two friends are buried next to each other at Arlington Memorial Park, where Hopkins’ parents, Gail and Jim Hopkins, installed a bench with an engraved dedication to Zinsenheim. Hopkins’ unveiling is set for Sunday, April 29.
Zinsenheim’s father, Steve, said the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission heard about the friends’ deaths from media reports and contacted him more than a year ago. The only witness, Zinsenheim’s girlfriend, provided the heroic details, and the commission announced the award Dec. 19.
The medal comes with a financial grant. Carnegie has recognized more than 10,000 heroes since 1904.
“Penny, Madison and I are thankful to the Carnegie Hero Commission for recognizing Davis,” father Steve Zinsenheim wrote in an email. “We have always been proud of him, and this just adds to it.”
During the award ceremony, Steve Zinsenheim read a statement a friend of his son’s, Bryan Panga, posted online in May 2016. Panga said Zinsenheim pulled him back from the edge at times when he was suicidal in high school. “I always knew you were a hero,” Panga wrote, “but now everyone knows what most of us have known all this time.”
More than 600 trees were planted in Israel in Zinsenheim’s memory, his father said. He and wife Penny went to Israel last year for the unveiling of a plaque in their son’s memory at Jewish National Fund’s American Independence Park.
The full award statement from the Carnegie commission:
Davis Ilan Zinsenheim died attempting to save Joseph H. Hopkins from falling, Lake Toxaway, North Carolina, May 10, 2016. While hiking in a mountainous area during the evening, Hopkins, 22, and his friend, Zinsenheim, 22, college student, were walking on the rocks in a streambed. Thick vegetation obstructed sight of the stream’s extension to the edge of a cliff and a waterfall at least 100 feet in height. Some distance from the cliff, Hopkins fell and slid over the brink to a ledge partway down. Zinsenheim, who had been standing close to Hopkins, yelled out. He ran after Hopkins until he too lost his footing, slid over the edge, and fell to the base of the waterfall. Both suffered severe injuries. Firefighters utilized a 100-foot ladder on a truck to reach Hopkins; he was taken to a hospital, where he died that night. Zinsenheim died at the scene.