At times, the term “hero’’ can be tossed around too cavalierly. Truly heroic acts are extraordinary.
St. Paul’s Donnell Gibson earned that special distinction when he risked his life last spring to save others. This week, the 29-year-old father of four received the St. Paul Fire Department’s Meritorious Service Award, the department’s highest civilian award for valor. He couldn’t be more deserving.
On April 1, Gibson was driving through a North End neighborhood when he saw three young children standing outside a burning home. He quickly did a U-turn, jumped out of his car and shouted at the kids to back away from the burning building.
When the frightened children instead ran back toward the house, Gibson ran in after them and pulled them to safety. Then, even though it felt like his clothes “were melting off,’’ he ran back into the house at least four times to rescue a total of 10 members of the Lay family.
Several years ago, Gibson was publicly praised by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who cited the Johnson High School graduate for his community service and for participating in the city’s emergency medical technician training program. During his 2015 annual address, Coleman lauded Gibson’s bravery and added: “We were right about Donnell.’’
A resident of the city’s East Side, Gibson now works several jobs that involve helping others. He’s a prevention specialist for the St. Paul Public Schools, a rec center employee and an emergency medical technician.
While honoring Gibson, St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler said: “There is no doubt that without your quick thinking and bravery, at least some of the Lay family would have been seriously injured or killed. … Few people would have stopped and helped. Fewer still would have braved the heat and smoke. And only those with true devotion to other people would have repeatedly risked their own life to save a family they didn’t previously know. Donnell Gibson is that rare individual.”
Now Gibson wants to do even more for those in need. He’s organized a nonprofit, the Gibson Foundation, to work with kids of color. He’d like to thank the Lay family for inspiring that idea, but the Fire Department has been unable to locate them since the fire. As that search continues, a grateful community thanks Gibson for demonstrating true heroism.