A longtime Bellingham Herald newspaper carrier has received national recognition for his daring November 2014 rescue of a coworker who was trapped in his car by freezing floodwaters from the Nooksack River.
Gary Spurling, 42, is among 24 people from across the United States and Canada receiving a Carnegie Medal for selfless acts of heroism in attempts to save the lives of others. All are civilians, except for a Canadian police officer who saved a man from drowning. Also among the winners is Lacey, Wash., teacher Brad Olson, who tackled and disarmed a 16-year-old school shooter at North Thurston High in April 2015.
I pulled him out through the window, grabbed his arms, had him wrap his arms around my neck, and kind of pushed off the car.
Gary Spurling, Bellingham Herald carrier
Three of the medals this year are posthumous awards.
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“What am I doing on this list?” Spurling said Thursday, March 24, shaking his head in disbelief. “These people are taking on armed assailants and stuff. I just pulled a guy out of a car.”
Spurling, a single dad with a daughter and son, has worked nights at the Herald for 15 years, delivering newspapers by car. He tosses papers on three routes — a small one downtown, one in the Birchwood neighborhood-Kellogg Road area, and another in the Hannegan Road-to-Meridian Street area. Years ago he was an Army medic at Fort Sam Houston, but he did not see combat action.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 2014, Spurling was in the Herald office in downtown Bellingham when coworker Dennis DuPraw, now 82, called on his mobile phone, saying his car was floating and wedged against a signpost by raging water somewhere near the Ten Mile Creek bridge on Barrett Road, east of Ferndale. DuPraw, a “K driver” who delivers missed papers and checks newspaper drop sites, become lost searching for an address in the predawn darkness. He had driven into floodwaters that were deeper than he realized.
Several days of rain had caused the swollen Nooksack River to spill its banks, and overnight temperatures plunged into the 20s and colder, thanks to a southward blast of arctic air.
I said to him, ‘Don’t come out, you might get swept away.’ But he kept coming, thank God.
Dennis DuPraw, who was rescued by Gary Spurling
Spurling called 911 and sped north on Interstate 5 toward where DuPraw was trapped. Spurling arrived just before a Ferndale police officer, a Whatcom County sheriff’s deputy and Whatcom County Fire District 7 firefighters.
“There was nobody else when I got there, so I went in,” Spurling said March 24. “It was across the bridge and probably about neck-deep water ... I pulled him out through the window, grabbed his arms, had him wrap his arms around my neck, and kind of pushed off the car.”
In addition to the Carnegie Medal, Spurling received the Whatcom County sheriff’s Distinguished Citizenship Award for bravery in early 2015.
DuPraw, who still works for the Herald, was treated for hypothermia at St. Joseph hospital in Bellingham and held overnight for observation. He said doctors think he might have suffered a minor heart attack.
“(Spurling) sure deserves it. I was sure thankful when I saw him. I’m not much of a swimmer, especially with that cold water,” DuPraw said Monday, March 28. “I said to him, ‘Don’t come out, you might get swept away.’ But he kept coming, thank God.”
Spurling’s award comes with a $5,000 cash grant from the Carnegie Hero Fund endowed by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1904.
Spurling said he’ll use the money to fix his mother’s house. “She lost her roof in the last windstorm,” he said. “We’ve just got it covered by a tarp.”
What is a Carnegie medal?
The medals are named for Pittsburgh steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who was inspired by stories of heroism during a coal mine disaster that killed 181 people, including a miner and an engineer who died trying to rescue others.
The commission’s latest honorees include six others who rescued or attempted to rescue people during four other shootings and three who died during rescue attempts.
The commission investigates stories of heroism and awards medals and cash several times a year. It has given away $38 million to 9,845 recipients or their families since 1904.