In saving a life, Pierre Johnson may also have transformed his own.
Locked up in a Minnesota prison over the past year for selling cocaine, Johnson was stunned to learn this week that he is among 22 Americans named Carnegie Heroes for risking his life to save a 91-year-old neighbor woman from a burning house in Brooklyn Park.
The board that signed off on the prestigious award, which comes with a $5,000 prize and an educational scholarship, knew Johnson was a felon when their investigator started researching his story in June 2012, the same month he pleaded guilty to the drug charge. It isn't the first time a prisoner has been honored, but it's very rare, said Doug Chambers, director of external affairs for the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.
On Thursday, Johnson, 35, said from the Willow River Correctional Facility that he's overwhelmed that the board saw beyond his criminal past to gave him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get straight for good.
"It shows you never know what is going to happen in life," he said.
That fresh start will come Oct. 15, when he is released from Willow River, an intensive boot camp program that involves education, critical-thinking-skills development, chemical dependency programming, community service and rigorous physical exercise.
Risking his own life
On May 17, 2012, Johnson was asleep on his couch when he heard two or three explosions down the block from his house. He ran out and found several people standing outside the smoked-filled structure. A "little dude," he said, told him that his grandmother was still inside.
Audrey A. Stewart, 91, was in a wheelchair in a second-floor bedroom. Winds drove the flames from the garage into the residence, blocking the front door. Johnson punched out a window and crawled inside, with a police officer following. Firefighters hadn't arrived yet, he said.
Johnson said he could hardly see but was able to check several bedrooms before finding Stewart sitting in bed. "She really didn't know what was going on," he said.
He saw oxygen tanks in Stewart's bedroom and feared they would explode. In 1998, he said, his grandfather died after his oxygen tanks caught on fire.
He quickly carried her downstairs, placed on her a couch and moved furniture away from a nearby window, then passed her through the window to officers outside before exiting to safety.
Johnson and Stewart were taken to a hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation. The cause of the fire remains unclear.
Johnson said he didn't know Stewart and the others in the house, who had moved into the neighborhood about a month before the fire. When he jumped in to help, "I wasn't thinking about what I was doing," he said.
Karla Stewart-Mitchell, Stewart's daughter, said the family moved after the fire. She said she was pleased to learn about Johnson's award and would like to talk to him when he gets out of prison to give "him some positive flow" for getting his life on track.
New recipients of Carnegie Hero medals are announced four times a year. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie started the fund after hearing rescue stories from a mine disaster that killed 181 people. A candidate for an award must be a civilian who voluntarily risks his or her life to an extraordinary degree while saving or trying to save the life of another person.
Many candidates, including Johnson, aren't nominated, Chambers said. The fund's commission learned about his rescue from a newspaper article.
'I have no excuses'
After years of narcotics-related arrests, Johnson said, it was finally time to quit when he got busted for selling cocaine in Sherburne County in 2010.
"When I was young, I was selling drugs to make money and pay bills," he said in Thursday's phone interview from Willow River. "When I did it when I was older, it was more about greed. I have no excuses."
Jennifer Durdahl, the mother of Johnson's two sons, has been with him since 2004. At the time of the fire, he was getting it together, working full time and being a good father, she said.
"Part of getting the award shows he's a good person, for sure," she said. "I'm very proud of him, and I'm excited about getting back to being a family and moving on."
Johnson said he couldn't believe he was even being considered. And he certainly didn't think he had a shot after the Carnegie investigator learned about his past.
"I told her about the program at Willow Creek," he said. "Didn't really give it much thought after that."
He plans to use the $5,000 to pay down his mortgage, and the scholarship may go for tuition at a plumbing school.
And the medal?
The family has a little display of his boy's baseball and football trophies on a fireplace mantel, Johnson said.
"Now Daddy has a trophy to put up there," he said. "I have to take full advantage of this break."