Austin Urban, 6, and his sister Morgan, 4, were drawing with chalk on the driveway of their Hampton Chase home, one Sunday, when their next-door neighbor fell off a ladder from the second story of his house.
Trying to secure a window screen when he somehow slipped, Earle Knudson, 63, plummeted 15 feet to the ground, landing head first on his concrete driveway. Seeing what happened, Austin instantly ran for help.
"He came in screaming, 'Mom, Dad, call 911 — Earle fell off the ladder,'" said Austin's dad, Jeff. "If he wasn't out there, God knows what would have happened to Earle."
And although the Willow Springs Elementary first-grader tends to downplay his efforts, in the eyes of the local community, he's a hero. Accordingly, Tuesday afternoon at his school, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue honored him in a special ceremony.
Praising Austin for his quick action and willingness to help a person in need, they presented him with a certificate of recognition, a fire cap, a two-way radio, a T-shirt and a backpack. They also gave Morgan a stuffed dalmation toy.
Present were school principal Sandra Culmer; Knudson, his wife Minda and other relatives; Austin's parents and sister; his maternal grandparents, Tina and Bob Bianchi; and his paternal grandfather, Adolph Urban. Participating in the ceremony before Willow Springs first- and second-graders were Fairfax and Arlington county public-information officers and life-safety educators, a county safety officer, a battalion chief and Sparky the fire dog.
"Austin certainly knew what to do in an emergency because of the training he received at home and at school," said Culmer. "We're very proud of him." Added Fire Department spokesman Dan Schmidt: "A little, 6-year-old boy who learned some basic skills saved a life. Quick action — and doing the right thing at the right time — made all the difference in the world."
DURING THE ceremony, Battalion Chief David McKernan told Austin, "You helped your neighbor out. You did a good deed." Then Knudson gave some advice to the students. "Remember, don't go up a ladder unless you have somebody holding it," he said. "Better yet, don't go up ladders."
His fall occurred Nov. 2. "It was a beautiful day and, around 1 p.m., I put the ladder on the driveway and went up," said Knudson. "Normally, I get my father-in-law to hold the ladder, but he wasn't available. So I decided, 'Why don't I just go up there, myself?' That was a bad mistake."
He doesn't remember falling, but thinks he was turning sideways when he lost his balance. "I was standing on the upper portion of the ladder, and I think that put pressure on the bottom of the ladder — causing it to come up a bit, and it slid down," he explained.
"I was bleeding pretty bad from my forehead, close to my eye," said Knudson. "I had a concussion. I landed on my left side and broke my left hand, left foot and pelvis and cracked four ribs on that side. My two front teeth were knocked out, and I had cuts and lacerations."
Actually, Austin wasn't the only hero, that day. Knudson's wife and Austin's parents also played major roles. Austin's mom, Charlie Jo, a former physical therapist/chiropractor, rushed outside and plunged into action.
"EARLE'S WIFE was hysterical, and I grabbed his head to stop the bleeding and keep him conscious," she said. "He started going into convulsions, and I had my husband hold him down [so he wouldn't injure himself further]. Then I had Earle's wife get me a pillow and blanket for him, and I held his head in my lap while we waited for the ambulance."
Knudson's wife of 25 years, Minda, a medical technologist, had just gone upstairs when she heard a noise. "I saw him there [at the window] and then, in a split second, he was gone," she said. She, two, ran outside. "I didn't know if he was breathing, and he was bleeding a lot. I resuscitated him and he opened his eyes. He was fighting to get up, and I was screaming for help."
Neighbor Brenda McGraw calmed her down and took her inside the house, where they prayed until the Medevac helicopter came. She also later drove Minda to Inova Fairfax Hospital.
"I'm a nurse and, when I looked at Earle and saw all that blood, I said to myself, 'There's no way,'" said McGraw. "But God must have a plan for his life."
Ambulances and fire trucks responded from fire stations in Centreville (17), Clifton and Burke Centre, and Knudson noted how quickly they arrived. "Fairfax County's helicopter was busy, so they called in the Park Police helicopter," added Jeff Austin. Knudson said Charlie Jo recommended he be Medevaced, and he praised her and Austin's efforts.
"It was just a miracle that they were there," he said. "Between her and her son, I believe they saved my life. Doctors and nurses told me that 90 percent of people who fall 10 feet or more are fatalities."
AS FOR AUSTIN, said Knudson, "I was very impressed with his ability to respond quickly. And I think it's an inspiration for other little kids to see that it's noble to do the right thing in an emergency."
Charlie Jo said Austin was the only one who could describe to rescue personnel exactly what happened. He told them Knudson hit the ladder coming down and then landed on his head in the driveway. "We're so proud of him," she said. "He's just 6, and he was so together. Seeing all that blood didn't phase him, in the least."
His father agrees. "When the fire chief told me, that evening, how special it was for him to have done this, kept his head and remained calm, I had a tear in my eye," he said. "It was one of those proud-father moments. It was really nice of my son to do something nice for somebody."
In the hospital, doctors initially thought Knudson had brain damage, but an EEG showed that everything was normal. "I feel so fortunate, considering everything that happened to me," he said. "And thanks to prayers, vitamins and a positive attitude, I'm recovering quite well."
A 15-year resident of Hampton Chase, Knudson is a systems engineer with Northrop Grumman IT (TASC) in Westfields. After falling, he doesn't remember anything until he was in the hospital for a few days. After five days there, he was transferred to the Mount Vernon Rehabilitation Center for about 12 days.
HE RETURNED HOME, Nov. 21, but was feeling anxious and had no appetite. Three days later, he called 911 and was rushed to Inova Fair Oaks Hospital. "I had a high heart rate — about 100 beats a minute — and shortness of breath," he explained. "They did a CAT scan and said I had blood clots in my lungs. They'd traveled up from my leg."
Knudson ended up in the Intensive Care Unit, but was able to return home five days later. He still takes a blood thinner to keep any new clots from forming. And when the casts were removed from his broken hand and foot, he had to go to physical therapy. But remarkably, he's not complaining.
"It's been a challenging couple of months," he said. "But one of the best things that happened is that my wife took off from work for six weeks to take care of me. So she was the third person who saved my life. I had a lot of angels watching over me."
Austin said that, when he saw Knudson fall, he immediately thought, "I have to tell Mommy and Daddy." He said he felt good about what he did and noted that all the hoopla, Tuesday, was a big surprise to him. However, he had a small inkling after fire and rescue personnel pulled up in front of his school. Said Austin: "My friend told me there was a fire truck out there."
When not helping save lives, he enjoys playing baseball and X-Box and PlayStation games. He wants to be a policeman when he grows up "because they arrest guys and all that stuff."
Knudson's still home from work, but TASC is holding his job for him. "My energy is low and I still tire easily, but I can see progress, finally," he said. "Life is so fragile. You can be healthy, one minute, and in the hospital, the next. All it takes is a split second and your whole life is turned upside down."
"On Christmas, we just stayed home together, and I thanked God," said his wife. "My Christmas gift was that he's alive."