The day after Donnell Gibson singlehandedly saved 10 strangers from a St. Paul house fire, he brought his 11-year-old son back to the scene, an ashy pile of debris in the Frogtown neighborhood.
It was as much a teaching moment for the 29-year-old father of four as a lesson he could imprint on his young son.
“You can show them this is what a man does — he protects, he is brave,” Gibson said of that emotional trip back to the site at Western Avenue and Front Street. “The best way to set an example is by doing it yourself.”
Gibson recounted the harrowing rescue Tuesday afternoon while accepting the St. Paul Fire Department’s Meritorious Service Award, the highest award given by the department for valor. Flanked by his parents, children and several supporters at Fire Station 22 — only a few blocks from the fire — Gibson described the April 1 blaze that changed his life.
On the day in question, Gibson spotted three young children outside the burning home and quickly pulled a U-turn in his car. He jumped out and began shouting at them to back away from the house.
Instead, they ran inside. He sprinted after them, pulling each one to safety on the curb.
He did this again and again — at least four times — to rescue 10 members of the Lay family inside the house, which by then was fully engulfed in flames. All before authorities arrived.
“It felt like my clothes were melting off,” said Gibson, an East Side resident and graduate of Johnson High School who works multiple jobs: as a prevention specialist at St. Paul Public Schools, as an emergency medical technician and at a local rec center.
St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler presented Gibson with the award at a small ceremony Tuesday, noting that without his intervention the situation could have unraveled very differently.
“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,” 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.”
The rescue came on a record-breaking 84-degree day when winds gusted to 40 miles per hour or more across the Twin Cities area, contributing to fires in other parts of the region and prompting warnings from the state fire marshal because of dry conditions.
Fire investigators later determined that the blaze started when a downed power line ignited vegetation that was carried by high winds to the homes of Western and Front.
Family members were on all levels of the home — some of them asleep — when the fire began and Gibson stepped in to drag them to safety.
The department has been unable to locate the family since the fire, and all previously listed numbers for them have been disconnected, Butler said.
Gibson, though, has been looking for them for several months and is hoping to thank them for sparking his latest endeavor — a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping steer inner-city youth in the right direction.
“The kids were more courageous than me,” Gibson said. “They followed a guy they didn’t even know.”
Paperwork was filed for Gibson Foundation, Inc., last week, and newly appointed officials are on the lookout for office space.
The organization is just another way for Gibson to be a role model for local minority kids, said friend and co-worker Kristy Pierce.
During his previous work with special-needs children, Gibson has shown a compassion that has had long-lasting positive effects, she said. “Every single day he’s saving lives.”
Today, the lot at Western and Front is empty, bare of the home that burned to the ground. Gibson frequently drives by the space, whose only tenants are patches of grass and weeds standing several feet high.
“It didn’t look like anything had ever happened there,” Gibson said of the land today. “In a matter of days, you can shed all this dirt and regrow.”