A Minnesota father of five children risked his life to save 10 strangers from a burning home in St. Paul, Minn. The Saint Paul Fire Department awarded him on Tuesday with the highest award for civilian bravery.
It was nearly 90 degrees on April 1 when Donnell Gibson, 29, was on his way to work at the Rice Recreation Center and spotted a duplex at 402 Front Street with a raging wind-swept fire spreading from the neighbor’s house.
Gibson, a 2009 graduate of Saint Paul’s EMS Academy and a St. Paul Parks and Recreation employee, immediately stopped his car after seeing a few kids go inside. On his way, he told a woman nearby to call 9-1-1.
Gibson entered the home, grabbed the kids inside, and brought them to a safe street corner. After they told him there were more, he went back inside where he found a little girl sleeping in her bed -- he later joked that the little girl was hysterical and probably thought “there’s a black man in my house trying to get me.”
So, he said he thought the best way to show her he wasn’t there to hurt her was to nudge her with his backside to the doorway and bring her out to the corner with the rest of the kids. He again headed back into the home when they said there were still more inside.
“My clothes felt like they were melting on my body,” Gibson said. “I had on jeans and all the wrong equipment.”
When he entered the home again he pounded on the walls yelling “there’s a fire, there’s a fire,” in hopes that the others would hear. Three males then proceeded to come down the stairs and Gibson brought them outside, where the family said there were still more inside.
Gibson realized he hadn’t been to the basement yet so he went down the stairs and pounded on the walls. A teenage boy came up and grabbed the others downstairs. Everyone was finally out.
“We all hugged each other and cried,” Gibson said.
A huge crowd including the media gathered, so he started directing traffic telling cars to go around the back alley. He also showed the fire truck where the hose was.
A woman who he saved that didn’t speak clear English grabbed him and said “hero, hero, hero” and brought him to a news reporter, continuing to point at him saying “hero, hero, hero.”
“Donnell repeatedly put himself in grave danger in order to rescue 10 people from a burning duplex on Front Avenue,” Saint Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler said Tuesday as he presented him the award. “Few people would’ve stopped and helped -- Fewer still would’ve braved the heat and smoke. And only those with a true devotion to other people would’ve repeatedly risked their own life to save the life of a family that they didn’t previously know.”
Gibson said when he went home the kids told him he smelled like a barbecue and asked him why he didn’t bring them food.
“Since that day on I’ve been trying to show people that what we’re here for is for other people,” Gibson told the media. “We didn’t progress as human beings alone.”
Chris Coleman, the Mayor of St. Paul, said he first met Gibson a few years ago when he was attending the EMS academy.
“We highlighted his story in one of my state of the city addresses because Donnell has an extraordinary story of perseverance and determination,” Coleman said.
Coleman said Gibson became the first member of his family to graduate high school, and it was a very challenging story that led him to that graduation.
“Outside of my story I’ve seen other kids with similar stories,” Gibson said in regards to his childhood. “The one thing I can say is I’m proud of my story, that’s what’s made me who I am today and I think that’s what gave me the heart I have and the courage I got.”
Gibson said he plans on possibly joining the St. Paul Fire Department someday.
“The one thing we know for sure is he passes the bravery portion of whatever test there is,” Mayor Coleman said.